A gas explosion has sparked a fire at a Russian laboratory complex stockpiling viruses ranging from smallpox to Ebola, authorities have said.
The State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology denied that the fire had exposed the public to the pathogens stored inside, some of the deadliest on Earth.
The blast took place during repairs to a fifth-floor sanitary inspection room at the facility – known as Vector – in Koltsovo, in the Novosibirsk region of Siberia, the centre said on Monday. The site housed secret biological weapons research during the Soviet era and is now one of Russia’s main disease research centres.
One worker suffered third-degree burns after the blast, which blew out the glass in the building. The fire reportedly spread through the building’s ventilation system. A fire covering 30 square metres was later extinguished.
Russian authorities insisted that the room where the explosion occurred was not holding any biohazardous substances and that no structural damage was caused. The mayor of Koltsovo said that the laboratory did not contain any disease samples because of ongoing repair work.
The smallpox virus survives in two places on Earth: at Vector and at another high-security laboratory at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Russian authorities last month were slow to release information about an explosion at a military testing site that caused a spike in radiation levels in Arkhangelsk region. The blast occurred when a liquid-fuelled rocket carrying nuclear materials exploded, killing at least five people.
Authorities initially denied the incident had occurred and reportedly did not tell local hospital staff that the victims had been exposed to deadly levels of radiation. Russia has not said what the military specialists were working on, although experts have speculated it may be a nuclear-powered cruise missile mentioned by Vladimir Putin last year.
Monday’s incident was not the first at the Vector lab. In 2004, a researcher died at the complex after accidentally pricking herself with a needle carrying the Ebola virus. Russian media then claimed it was the only death from the virus in Russia’s history. Outbreaks of anthrax and smallpox were caused by Soviet weapons development programmes in the 1970s and subsequently covered up by the government.
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The Vector institute was threatened by a lack of funding in the 1990s, raising concerns that researchers could sell their expertise or actual biological samples to governments such as Iraq and North Korea. The laboratory also gave training on how to respond to a potential terrorist attack in the 2000s. A weapons cache including grenade launchers reportedly belonging to a mafia group was found near the facility in 2006.
The lab has also held highly contagious forms of bird flu and strains of hepatitis.