‘Major emergency’ as explosion tears through Russian lab holding deadly airborne disease

A gas cylinder explosion smashed windows and triggered a fire at the laboratory in Koltsov, Siberia. The research laboratory houses infectious viruses, including smallpox, Ebola and HIV. The lab, also known as Vector, stored the Soviet Union’s biological weapons research during the Cold War before housing deadly diseases.

The fire was eventually extinguished, and Russian authorities insist the areas affected by the explosion did not hold biohazards substances, and there is no threat to the population.

According to Russian media, the situation was “quickly upgraded from an ordinary emergency to a major incident”.

One worker suffered from third degree burns after the blast.

The laboratory is one of two places in the world that stores the surviving smallpox virus, with the other lab being located in Atlanta.

Smallpox was globally eradicated in 1980, with the last naturally occurring case being diagnosed in October 1977.

Smallpox is an extremely contagious airborne disease and, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), was “one of the world’s most devastating diseases known to humanity”.

The incident follows an accidental explosion at a Russian naval base in August, with speculation surrounding whether it was linked to a sudden radiation spike in the region.

The Kremlin confirmed the “rocket engine explosion” killed two people and injured six.

There are mounting concerns that the explosion took place during the testing of a new nuclear missile. Local people were reportedly urged to take precautions against radiation.

Adding to the fears, the Archangelsk base where the explosion took place has since been placed on emergency lockdown, with the nearby White Sea also closed. A Russian expert told the BBC that the Russian Ministry of Defence has refused to disclose the details behind the mysterious lockdown of the base.

Dr Mark Galeotti said the incident was “clearly a bigger issue than the Russians are letting on”.

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While the Ministry of Defence rejected claims of a radiation leak, city officials in nearby Severodvinsk reported a radiation spike between 11:50 and 12:30 before falling and normalising by 14:00.

Dr Galeotti said: “This depot seems to have been used for the testing of one of Russia’s new liquid-propelled nuclear missiles – it is a highly secretive.

“The official response from the Defence Ministry has been ‘nothing to see here, no spike in radiation, no leak in radiation’. All we seem to know is the number of dead and injured, and that it was a rocket test. The rest is gossip.”

The Russian expert added: “They have closed off a large swath of the adjoining White Sea to shipping for a month.

“Despite what the Kremlin have said, there must have been some sort of radiation leak – and they want people to not just stay out of harm’s way, but also don’t want people coming to the site with Geiger Counters.

“The Defence Ministry is trying to play this down. It is clearly a bigger issue than they are letting on.”

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