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Some Russians don't believe assurances that an explosion at a disease research lab didn't release any hazardous material

Irina Titova , Business Insider US
 Sep 18, 2019, 09:16 AM
Map showing the location of Koltsovo town, where a gas explosion took place at a viral research lab on September 16, 2019.
Google Maps/Business Insider
  • A gas explosion hit a research center storing pathogens like anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox in Koltsovo, Russia, on Monday.
  • Officials immediately said there was no danger to the public after the accident.
  • But some Russians aren't buying the official reassurances because authorities have failed to convey the true dangers of such situations in the past.
  • "In Chernobyl they also said there was no danger and that everything was under control," one person wrote on Russian social network VKontakte.
  • More recently, Russian officials appeared to cover up information about the scale of a nuclear accident at a naval facility in the country's north.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Officials in the Russian town where an explosion hit a disease research center were at pains to say that there was no danger to the public after the accident.

The blast struck a facility in Koltsovo, a town in Siberia known for its science facilities. This one - the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, also known as Vector - has a history of handling anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox.

Its past raised concerns among some Russians who said on social media that they distrust the official reassurances, prompted in part by failures in the past of officials to convey the true dangers of such situations.

Nikolai Krasnikov, the town's mayor, visited the site Monday and told media that the situation was under control and there was no biological threat. Vector and Russia's consumer protection watchdog also said that no biologically hazardous substances were present at the time of the blast.

"No work with biological materials was carried out in the building," Vector said in an online statement.

A statement from Russia's State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, also known as Vector, about a gas explosion on September 16, 2019.
Vector

At the same time the comments of local people in Russia's popular social network VKontakte showed that some people were reluctant to take this at face value - or at least willing to joke about it.

"They won't tell us anything," a person named Dmitry Maslov wrote on the site.

Another, Ivan Chelovekov, wrote: "In Chernobyl they also said there was no danger and that everything was under control," referring to the 1986 reactor meltdown in the Soviet Union. Officials at the time suppressed news of the disaster.

More recently, Russian officials appeared to cover up information about the scale of a nuclear accident at a naval facility in Nyonoksa to the north of Russia.

Another, Vitaly Nikolayevich, said: "Well, if they've said there is not biological threat danger it is the right time to get evacuated."

Others noted that if the mayor felt happy to give a press conference at the site, it must be safe.

Russia's nuclear-armed Burevestnik cruise missile being tested in February 2019. Experts believe Russia was testing the same missile during the nuclear accident in Nyonoksa.
Screenshot/YouTube via Russian Defense Ministry

Meanwhile, experts said the danger may depend on the location of the explosion.

Igor Nikulin, a former member of Biological Weapons Commission at the United Nations, told the National News Service that "it is difficult to talk about the danger of the incident because it was not certain for sure if the works with the dangerous bacteria and viruses were held in the building."

"If such works were held there, there could be leaks. There are labs that work in open conditions but there are also closed facilities. In closed facilities they maintain special leak-tightness… They introduce very high safety measures there… If the explosion was in such facility it could be very dangerous."

Vector is one of two places in the world to store the live smallpox virus. The other sample of the deadly pathogen is stored at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Vector was founded in 1974. In the 1970s and 1980s it was actively involved in developing biological weapons.

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