Samples of the highly contagious (but eradicated) disease smallpox only exist in two laboratories in the world. As a relic of the Cold War, one is in the United States, and the other is in Russia – and the one located in Russia recently weathered an explosion.
The smallpox sample, along with cultures of anthrax and ebola (and other deadly pathogens), is housed at the Virology and Biotechnology Center in Novosibirsk. The lab was once in the service of developing bioweapons during the Cold War, and it still remains tightly secured. The walls around it are reinforced concrete, high-tech fences and motion detectors help with patrolling the perimeter, and even though a scientist died 15 years ago after an accident with Ebola, the facility is generally considered to be safe.
That is, it was before part of the facility exploded during regularly scheduled repair work.
The facility leadership put out a statement (translated from Russian):
“There was an explosion of a gas cylinder with a fire on the 5th floor of a six-story reinforced concrete laboratory building in the sanitary inspection room being repaired. No work with biological material on the body was carried out. One person was injured, building structures were not damaged.”
The employee suffered burns on his legs, and doctors confirm that no biohazards were found outside the facility, and that there is no threat to the general population.
If smallpox were to escape this facility or the one in the United States, containment would be a hard row to hoe.
The disease, caused by the variola virus, was a horrific scourge, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone. It was declared eradicated in 1979 following a global vaccination program, with the final death coming from a terrible accident in 1978.
It claimed the life of Janet Parker, a medical photographer who came into contact with a sample of the disease in a Birmingham Medical School laboratory.
The head of the lab, one Henry Bedson, committed suicide due to the guilt of releasing the deadly disease.
Once free of the disease, world powers made the decision to destroy all cultures except for those at the two secure laboratories for posterity (or bioweapons…again, Cold War). The last samples of the disease still reside there today.
Except for the live virus scientists fear could emerge from the thawing Siberian permafrost.
That, it would see, is a problem for another day.