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Explosion hits Russian research facility harbouring smallpox virus

17 September 2019

An explosion on September 16 caused a fire at the Vector Institute, a biological research facility in Siberia known for being one of the two sites in the world housing samples of live smallpox virus. 

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta is the only other place known to maintain live samples of the deadly pathogen.

According to a local administrator quoted by the TASS news agency, the incident occurred during scheduled maintenance work and did not pose a threat to the surrounding community.

The agency said there were no biohazard substances involved and one worker was injured and taken to a hospital with burns.

Russia Today reported that emergency responders were treating the explosion and fire as a major incident, given the sensitive work of the Institute.

The centre is known to be working on many potentially fatal pathogens. In 2004, a researcher died at the laboratory complex after accidentally pricking herself with a needle carrying the Ebola virus.

Smallpox killed about 300 million people in the 20th century and three in 10 people who contracted it died. Survivors were often left scarred and blind. The last known smallpox outbreak was in 1977 and the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980.

This incident follows another explosion at a Russian facility conducting cutting edge research. In August, an accident at a missile test site killed five nuclear scientists. US officials said they believed researchers at the site were working on a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

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