Gas Explosion at Russian Lab Stockpiling Smallpox, Anthrax, Ebola

Gas Explosion at Russian Lab Stockpiling Smallpox, Anthrax, Ebola

A building inside a major bioresearch laboratory in Russia exploded Monday, breaking windows and hospitalizing one worker with burns, according to various news reports.

The gas explosion about 12 miles from Novosibirsk occurred in a cleaning area of the 5th floor of a 6-story building at Vector, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, reports independent Russian news agency Interfax.

Vector is one of only 15 top-level BSL-4 labs in the world, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It is one of only two labs allowed by the World Health Organization to store the smallpox virus. The facility is also believed to store several other highly contagious infectious agents, including anthrax, avian flu, and Ebola.

Although reports indicate that no biological agents were spread in this explosion, the lab has reported an accident in the past. In 2004 it was widely reported that a female staff member was accidentally infected with Ebola at Vector and later died.

Accidents at labs that store potential bioweapons like smallpox bring up various safety and ethical questions. Here are more details from the doctors at about some of the diseases contained at Vector.

What Is Smallpox?

During the 20th century, smallpox was responsible for 300 million to 500 million deaths worldwide, writes Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD, who specializes in emergency medicine. The disease was wiped out in the late 70s, with the WHO declaring in 1980 that the virus had been eradicated worldwide. However, both Russia and the US retained stockpiles of the virus.

"Both the US... and Russia decided to retain their stockpiles in case they were needed to produce novel vaccines against a biological agent," Dr. Davis writes. "This has understandably stirred up controversy. Supporters of retaining the cultures note that existing stocks of the virus have been used to develop and test new treatments and vaccines."

Smallpox has a death rate of 30% or higher. It causes high fever, flu-like symptoms such as headache and chills, and causes exhaustion, Dr. Davis says. A rash develops within 24 to 48 hours. Other symptoms may include back pain, abdominal pain, sore throat, and vomiting. He adds that any case found today "will likely be a result of bioterrorism or biological warfare."

What Is Ebola?

Ebola first appeared in 1976, at a time when smallpox had been nearly eradicated, in what is now Congo near the Ebola river, Dr. Davis says. During the first outbreak, 318 patients were diagnosed with Ebola, and 88% of these died.

Since then outbreaks have occurred multiple times, mainly in sub-Saharan West Africa, with some strains proving more deadly than others. Humans catch the virus from infected animals, Dr. Davis says, while noting that primates, pigs, bats, and various other animals can carry the disease.

Early symptoms of Ebola virus infection include fever, headache, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and joint or muscle discomfort, Dr. Davis says. Later symptoms include red spots or rash, eye redness, hiccups, sore throat, a cough that may produce blood, vomiting blood, chest pain, mental confusion, bleeding internally and externally, and difficulty swallowing and breathing.

What Is Anthrax?

Unlike smallpox and Ebola, anthrax is caused by a bacteria, Dr. Davis says. Anthrax can infect animals like horses, cattle, and sheep, but humans cannot spread the disease.

"Anthrax has received a great deal of attention as it has become clear that the infection can also be spread by a bioterrorist attack or by biological warfare," Dr. Davis writes.

Anthrax infection can take four different forms, Dr. Davis says, depending on how it occurs. The disease may infect the skin, stomach, or lungs, and more recently it has been reported in heroin-injecting drug users in Northern Europe.

Inhaled anthrax is considered most deadly, Dr. Davis says. It can lead to sore throat and headaches that develop into chest pain and shortness of breath, followed by coughing up blood. Shock, coma, and death soon follow, he says.

What Is Avian Flu?

Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, became infamous in the late 1990s when a particularly severe strain killed hundreds of millions of birds, including poultry, Dr. Davis says.
Although it rarely infects humans, at least 48 subtypes have been identified, many of which continue to plague Chinese chicken flocks, he says.

"Researchers are concerned that the strains will continue to swap genes with other flu viruses and may start a new pandemic," Dr. Davis writes.

Symptoms of avian flu are typical of the flu, and include fever, malaise, cough, sore throat, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, joint pain, lethargy, runny nose, insomnia, and eye infections. When this viral infection progresses to pneumonia, it can be fatal, Dr. Davis says.

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