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An Explosion Rocked a Russian Pathogen Lab That Stores Ebola, Smallpox

The incident highlights the risks of researching and storing lethal pathogens.

by Matthew Gault
Sep 17 2019, 11:00pm

Image: Getty

An explosion at a Russian research lab housing lethal viruses such as Ebola and smallpox was reportedly so severe that it blew out windows on Monday.

A gas canister was to blame for the blaze at the Vektor center in Koltsovo, Siberia, according to a statement. At least one person suffered severe burns and is in critical care. According to Vector, the explosion occurred during repairs in a sanitary inspection room on the fifth floor of the six-floor building and no biological materials were being worked on.

The Vektor center was, during the Cold War, one of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons research facilities. Today, the facility studies the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of pathogens. At the time of the fire, Vektor still housed the world’s largest collection of viruses, including samples of Ebola and smallpox. Though no super plague was unleashed today, the fire highlights the dangers of storing deadly pathogens.

The World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980. The virus

now, ostensibly, exists in only two places—at the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) research facility in Atlanta, Georgia and at Vektor. Smallpox killed its final victim in 1978 when medical photographer Janet Parker was infected in a laboratory studying smallpox in Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

In 2014, the CDC published a report that found it had improperly sent deadly pathogens to different labs five times in the preceding decade. The incidents involved samples of anthrax DNA, the bacteria responsible for botulism, samples of Bird Flu, and a “highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 influenza” that had contaminated a relatively safe flu virus sample, according to the CDC.

The Vektor center itself has a history with deadly accidents. In 2004, Vektor researcher Antonia Presnyakova died after she accidentally injected herself with Ebola while conducting research.

No matter how secure and safe we think these pathogens are, they have a way of eluding our attempts to control them. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the Western powers both sought to weaponize these deadly diseases and many of their experiments are still kicking around in laboratories across the world. In 2014, for example, federal scientists discovered six vials of freeze dried smallpox stored in a former National Institute of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland.

The argument for keeping these viruses is that they need to be studied. And, in case they should ever return, samples must be kept to help us fight them. But, as Parker and Presnyakova discovered, the presence of deadly pathogens is always a risk, no matter how noble the intentions behind keeping them.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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