On Monday, an explosion sparked a fire at the National Virology and Biotechnology Research Center, an institute for biological research in Siberia, known for being one of the two centers in the world for live measles virus samples. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta is the only other place that knows it maintains live samples of the deadly pathogen.
According to the chief administrator of the town of Koltsovo, where the research center, commonly referred to as Vector Institute, is located, the explosion occurred during scheduled maintenance activities. The incident does not pose a threat to the surrounding community, Nikolai Krasnikov told the Russian news agency TASS . According to TASS, no biological substances were affected. One worker was injured and taken to a hospital with burns. Russia Today reports that emergency responders treated the explosion and fire as a major incident, given the sensitive work of the Vector Institute.
Vector Institute is known for producing the best epidemiological studies. According to TASS researchers recently completed successful trials with the Ebola vaccine earlier this year. Despite this reputation, there are questions raised about the institute. A senior Soviet official on biological weapons, who defected in the United States in the 1990s, claims that smallpox has been moved to the Vectors Institute for research into bioweapons.
The other worldwide smallpox storage facility, the CDC, also faces questions about its safety processes and infrastructure. In 2016 USA Today published an investigation into damage at the centers, including a 2009 incident in which scientists in biohazard suits could see light penetrating a decontamination chamber where it was alleged that workers who have just completed lethal pathogens
The last known measles epidemic was in 1977 and the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980. The disease killed some 300 million people in the 20th century and three 10 people who contracted it died. The survivors are often left scarred and blind.
On Monday, the blast follows the heels of another explosion at a Russian high-tech and high-risk facility. In August, five nuclear scientists were killed in a rocket test accident. US officials believe the site's researchers were working on a nuclear cruise missile.