Perspective: BiothreatsWhat Happened after an Explosion at a Russian Disease Research Lab Called VECTOR?

Published 2 December 2019

In September, a mysterious, powerful explosion shook-up a vast Soviet-era virology campus in Siberia called VECTOR. Filippa Lentzos writes that around the world, people in the know sat up and took notice, and for a good reason. Was the explosion the result of a deliberate attack by terrorists who were trying to gain a hold of deadly cultures to be used in bioterror attacks? Or was it an accident which, as was the case with an explosion at a similar facility forty years ago, would expose illicit bioweapons activities by Russia?

In September, a mysterious, powerful explosion shook-up a vast Soviet-era virology campus in Siberia called VECTOR. Filippa Lentzos writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that aroundthe world, people in the know sat up and took notice, and for a good reason.

The aging lab stores dangerous viruses, including smallpox, and biosecurity experts were worried about two scenarios: First, was it a deliberate attack by terrorists who were trying to gain a hold of deadly cultures to be used in bioterror attacks?

Second, was it an accident – but one which revealed illicit bioweapons activities on the part of Russia? This was the case with a biosafety breaches in a similar facility forty years. In that accident, a large and deadly anthrax leak exposed the Soviet Union’s prohibited biowarfare activities.

Lentzos writes:

From media reports on the explosion, it was unclear exactly which parts of VECTOR, and which labs, had been affected by the explosion and fire. Of particular concern was the facility housing the unique smallpox-causing variola virus, one of just two such repositories in the world, both routinely monitored by the World Health Organization. Following the media reports, VECTOR management responded to queries from the World Health Organization with reassurance that the smallpox repository had not been affected, according to an organization spokesperson. From the organization’s perspective, there was no need to follow up with a visit or ad hoc inspection.

She adds:

The international community does not yet know with any certainty what really happened at VECTOR that day. If it really was an accidental gas explosion with no resulting health or security risks, the situation seems to have been handled appropriately. But given Russia’s history of covering up biological warfare research and secrecy around major accidents, national and local officials needed to show even more transparency than they did.

And who knows, in 20 years’ time, we might even find out what happened at VECTOR from an HBO series, as one local resident near the VECTOR site tweeted, referring to the popular show about the Chernobyl disaster.

Leave a comment

Register for your own account so you may participate in comment discussion. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to abide by our Comment Guidelines, our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Use. Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief. Names are displayed with all comments. Learn more about Joining our Web Community.