The Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology is one of two facilities in the world allowed to house smallpox samples

By Char Adams
September 17, 2019 02:26 PM
Science laboratory test tubes
Credit: Getty

An explosion and subsequent fire reportedly occurred on Monday at a Russian biological research facility, which is one of two labs in the world that carries samples of the smallpox virus.

Officials said “a gas cylinder explosion” caused a fire in the fifth-floor sanitary inspection room at the Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology, commonly known as “Vector,” in Koltsovo, according to a statement. One person was injured and treated for burns at a local burn center, TASS, Russia’s news agency, reported.

The room was under construction when the blast occurred and caused a fire that spread some 30 square meters, officials said in the statement. Authorities said the incident poses no threat to the public, TASS reported.

Glass shattered in the explosion, but the building structure wasn’t damaged, according to TASS and the statement.

Vector was founded in 1974 and works to develop tools to prevent, treat and diagnose infectious diseases, according to the facility’s website. It was once known for developing biological weapons research during the Cold War Soviet era and is now one of the world’s largest research centers of its kind, CNN reported.

Specialists at the center are developing vaccines for swine flu, Ebola, and HIV, TASS reported. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the only other center permitted to hold live samples of the smallpox virus, according to CNN.

“Viruses are fragile and more than 100 degrees or more will kill them,” Dr. Joseph Kam, of the Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (CEID), told CNN. “Part of the wave of the force of the explosion would carry it away from the site when it was first stored.”

A 2016 inspection by the World Health Organization found that Vector meets international levels of biosafety and security for smallpox storage and research. However, the organization “requested further work on some issues.”

A Vector researcher died in 2004 after pricking herself with a needle carrying the Ebola virus, the New York Times reported then.