An explosion, said to be of a gas cylinder, caused a fire at the Vektor research institute in Novosibirsk. The explosion took place on the fifth floor of a six-floor building, where a laboratory was being refurbished. This is a plausible explanation.
How worried should you be? If you live outside Novosibirsk, not very.
There are reports that all the glass in the building was broken, but I am beginning to doubt those reports, because I don’t see them in all the news articles. BBC has one of the more complete reports.
Vektor houses a collection of nasty viruses, including one of the two official samples of smallpox virus. I say “official” because every now and then overlooked samples show up. It’s also possible that as the Arctic warms up, the bodies of people who died from smallpox will become more accessible. But otherwise, smallpox is extinct in the wild.
The smallpox virus is probably stored in a cold room in the basement of the building. We’ve come to the time when the official samples should be destroyed. The other is at the CDC in Atlanta.
Is the Russian government telling the truth? Giving us the whole story? In 1979, the city of Sverdlovsk had a sudden epidemic of anthrax from a leak in a bioweapons production plant. The Soviet government pretended that this was from bad meat and kept it quiet, just as they did seven years later with the Chernobyl disaster. Putin seems to prefer handling accidents that way, having turned off international radiation monitors that might have told us something about the explosion at Nyonoksa in August.
If this is a coverup and viruses were released, people in Novosibirsk are the most at risk. Disease will show up fairly quickly, and people can be isolated and vaccinated. Russia does not want epidemics in its population. There is the small possibility that someone infected from Novosibirsk might travel internationally, but we know how to deal with these viruses, even Ebola now.
As to the question of whether all Russia’s explosions this summer are related, the answer is probably not, except for one possible connection. The Achinsk armory explosions are of a not uncommon type in Russia. Too many armories, too little safety, bored and uncaring security forces. The Nyonoksa and Novosibirsk explosions could be connected by pressure from above to get new weapons fielded rapidly. Pressure and haste in science tend to make things go wrong.