Explosion At Novosibirsk

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.

45 replies
  1. 1
    Chyron HR says:

    It’s all happening as Kojima foretold.

  2. 2

    I suspect that Putin’s fellow co-conspirators only care about oil. Infrastructure, scientific research, if it doesn’t produce oil or weaponry it’s not important to them, and many, especially cold-war era structures are left underfunded and poorly maintained. Combined with Soviet-era neglect and poor design, it’s a wonder that things haven’t gotten worse for Russia and the world.

  3. 3
    Elizabelle says:

    Thank you Cheryl. Yours sounds like a very sensible take.

  4. 4
    artem1s says:

    domestic terrorism? if Putin had a problem with civil unrest, do you think it would ever reach the news?

  5. 5
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Thanks for this, Cheryl.

  6. 6
    JPL says:

    Thank you Cheryl.

  7. 7

    @artem1s: Probably not, especially if it’s in a remote location away from outside cameras and visitors.

  8. 8

    @artem1s: Putin does have a problem with civil unrest. There have been demonstrations in Moscow and other cities about a variety of issues. But I just don’t see sabotage being the reason for the string of explosions. The civil unrest is not at that point, and there are other explanations for the explosions.

  9. 9
    R-Jud says:

    @Chyron HR: That is quite a, uh, blast from the past.

    Thank you for this post, Cheryl. I can calm down a few people who are half-convinced The Stand is happening in real time.

  10. 10
    MattF says:

    Wikipedia has an explosions in Russia category, It’s not up-to-the-minute, but, evidently, explosions happen.

  11. 11
    Ladyraxterinok says:

    In the 90s a few conservative colleagues claimed that a spy or a Russian defector was reporting a secret Russian lab of all sorts of supposedly long-gone diseases that they were readying to unleash on the West .

    They might use the diseases as blackmail.

    I wonder if any of them have heard about this.

  12. 12
    StringOnAStick says:

    @Ladyraxterinok: Russia is the conservative ‘s best buddy now, therefore no risk of disease attacks from their friend and election fixer Vlad! Unpossible!

  13. 13

    @StringOnAStick: Their reversal on Russia is so weird. It’s like how in 1984, the government just announces a change in allies and enemies and everyone says oh yeah, that ‘s who we’ve always been at war with.

  14. 14

    @Ladyraxterinok: There is still a lot we don’t know about Russia’s bioweapons programs. We do know the places where they were manufactured, and it looks like Russia has destroyed its military stocks. But troubling hints emerge from time to time. My best read is that there isn’t large-scale production, but they keep their research current.

  15. 15
    Mike in DC says:

    Pretty sure this is how Red Dawn of the Dead starts.

  16. 16
    Yarrow says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor: It really is like 1984. Creepy.

    @Ladyraxterinok: I’ve read that as permafrost melts that some long-hidden diseases are being released. Or something like that. Not sure how much of a danger that really is.

  17. 17
    The Moar You Know says:

    I was one of the very last people to get the smallpox vaccine. I wonder if it still works? Hope I never have to find out.

  18. 18
    NotMax says:

    Yeah, when early reports were being consistent on glass (but not walls) being blown out, the most logical inference was that it was an unfortunate accidental mishap, probably gas related.

    And, as has been stated previously, there are no windows in the vaults.

  19. 19
    NotMax says:

    @Cheryl Rofer

    Yup. Analogous to, for example, Japan’s nuclear latency status.

  20. 20
    Jinchi says:

    Too many armories, too little safety, bored and uncaring security forces.

    I understand too little safety, but doesn’t “bored security officers” suggest that people are stealing the explosives? And wouldn’t that show up in explosions far from the armories?

  21. 21
    low-tech cyclist says:

    In 1979, the city of Sverdlovsk had a sudden epidemic of anthrax from a leak in a bioweapons production plant.

    Which should have immediately been renamed “the castle Anthrax.”

  22. 22
  23. 23

    @Jinchi: You make a good point, but there’s little indication of that.

  24. 24
    randy khan says:

    My working assumption about how these incidents might be related is that the most likely relationship is that maintenance and the like is not something that’s high on anyone’s list of things to do in underfunded operations in remote locations. So they would be related by neglect.

  25. 25
    Repatriated says:

    @randy khan: Agreed. It’s not bored security guards, but underfunded inspection and maintenance of Cold War era ordinance stockpiles. Storage facilities decaying without critical repairs, inspections getting pencil-whipped, overworked personnel making lethal mistakes with deteriorating munitions.

  26. 26
    hells littlest angel says:

    @randy khan: Clearly, Russia needs an Infrastructure Week.

  27. 27
    Aleta says:

    off topic:

    Having so many female voices at a national broadcaster was nothing short of revolutionary in the 1970s, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson recalled in an interview with The Daily Princeton earlier this year.

    “[W]e called them the Founding Mothers of NPR, or sometimes we called them the Fallopian Club,” she said.

    Liasson said it wasn’t so much that NPR had a mission for gender equality but that the network’s pay, which was well below the commercial networks of the day, resulted in “a lot of really great women who were in prominent positions there and who helped other women.”

    By the time Roberts joined ABC News in 1988 — while retaining a part-time role as political commentator at NPR that she maintained until her death — women were increasingly commonplace at broadcast networks and newspapers.

    Cokie Roberts, breast cancer

  28. 28
    Elizabelle says:

    @Aleta: RIP. I liked Cokie so much more before I realized what a “both sides” enabler she was.

    Fallopian Club. That’s funny. Yeah, NPR was a trailblazer. Susan Stamberg and the still marvelous Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts too. Probably missing a lot of very talented women who made their careers there.

  29. 29
    Fair Economist says:

    I agree it’s probably time to dispose of the smallpox samples, but would you trust the Russians to do it?

  30. 30
    J R in WV says:

    Born in 1950, conspicuous smallpox vaccination scar on left shoulder…

    In the late 1970s we acquired a Holstein heifer, bred her, and learned how to milk. Given that her teats were virginal small, at first I used bag balm and just ran my fingers down the teats, got less than an ounce per pull. Fortunately, they grew as fast as my ability and soon we were getting way more milk than we could put to use, even feeding older milk to the pigs.

    Then one day she got these sores on her tender nose, and a day or two later on her udder. Talked to a vet on the phone, who suggested it was probably Cow Pox, which is still common in dairy herds as a one time infection. So we didn’t drink any milk she produced for a couple of weeks.

    The interesting thing is that I got several small places on my forearms, that seemed just like smaller versions of Molly’s Cow Pox sores. I also know from medical history that milk maids in jolly olde england were known not to get small pox, which helped doctors to figure out vaccination for the dread Pox epidemics.

    I wonder to this day if my ability to contract Cow Pox means that by the age of 30 or 35 I no longer had much immunity to Smallpox? Scary thoughts for today!

  31. 31
    Gvg says:

    I suspect we are going to see more and more industrial accidents in Russia due to it’s being ruled by extractors who don’t build for the future. We aren’t as far along here, but have the same trend line. Hopefully people will pay attention and learn

  32. 32
    chopper says:

    @J R in WV:

    i’d say yes, unless the cow pox you were exposed to was such a sufficiently different strain that the vaccine you received as a kid didn’t confer immunity. truth be told, 30 something years is a long time to expect a vaccine to work.

  33. 33

    @Fair Economist: The destruction of the samples, in both countries, would be done in the presence witnesses from both countries and other countries that have signed on to the Biological Weapons Convention. Probably a delegation from WHO, too. Might Russia hold some back? Yes, and so might we. No absolute certainties in stuff like that.

  34. 34
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I believe Ft. Hood is the USA’s military bioweapons research centre. We don’t hear much from there either.

  35. 35
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: As far as I know the known-about smallpox samples are held by civilian medical research organisations, not military bioweapons teams so their destruction wouldn’t involve the BWC.

  36. 36
    Steeplejack (phone) says:


    Zombie mastodons!

  37. 37

    @Robert Sneddon: If I were doing the destruction, I’d invite a BWC team. Since smallpox has been considered as a military weapon, I’m not sure exactly how that fits into the BWC. Do you have a reading from the treaty?

  38. 38
    rikyrah says:

    Thanks for this. When I first heard the news, all sorts of movies came into my mind. Here’s to hoping for the best scenario.🙏🙏

  39. 39
    Zinsky says:

    Very interesting, Cheryl! Thanks. It’s horrifying to think that Putin and his ilk even considered using weaponized viruses as tactical weapons. Insanity. A good friend who is a brilliant biochemist talks of viruses in hushed and diabolical terms – No one knows where they come from, how they survive, how long they can survive and on and on and on. They are scary organisms and should never be used as weapons.

  40. 40
    Mart says:

    I thought St. Louis University had some small pox virus bugs. Know they have a bunch of nasty shit and I was not allowed to visit that area of the campus.

  41. 41
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: The BWC covers military development and possible usage of biological weapons. The smallpox samples in civilian research institutes are not intended for military research or future weaponisation purposes. The debate about the destruction of the samples revolves around the danger they represent as the last known surviving smallpox viruses versus the their value in future research into such viruses so the BWC doesn’t apply, in the same way SALT and START treaty representatives aren’t involved in civilian nuclear power issues such as spent fuel reprocessing and the like. The WHO whould definitely be involved if it was decided the samples were to be destroyed though.

    I expect any real modern bio-weapons program such as the ones at Ft. Hood would be working with semi-synthetic organisms, specially bred from precursors using GM techniques rather than known “wild” diseases. Smallpox is dangerous but it’s a contained danger even if it was weaponised — we know how to make effective vaccines to combat smallpox and most other related poxes. Anthrax is more problematic hence the public focus on Saddam’s “mobile biological warfare labs” during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq but it’s a piker compared to, say, a GM-ed version of Ebola or other highly communicable diseases like plague.

  42. 42

    @Robert Sneddon: Well, I’ll wait and see what actually happens, since you’re not quoting the treaty. When and if the samples actually are destroyed.

    The BWC prohibits the development of organisms for war, so I doubt that Ft. Hood is doing that, although you never know.

  43. 43
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: As I understand it the US Government has not signed up to further protocols in the BWC that permit “no-knock” inspections of military bioresearch facilities, but those protocols are in flux somewhat. The reported purpose of the Ft. Hood research effort is to develop defences against possible bioweapons. However to develop and test such defences it is necessary to have samples to work with and the obvious step is to develop and manufacture bioweapons, at least in small quantities for lab use. Going the further step and militarising such bioweapons is something else.

    During WWII Britain developed a weaponised version of anthrax and tested it on Gruinard, a remote Scottish island. The stated purpose was to work towards treatments and vaccines against the threat of anthrax being deployed by the Nazis but it was the penultimate step before our own militarisation of anthrax as a weapon of war.

  44. 44
    Travels with Charley says:

    Late to the thread, but military biodefense research is conducted at the US Army Research Institute for Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at Ft Detrick, MD. NOT at Ft Hood.

  45. 45
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Travels with Charley: You saved me the trouble. I worked on & off as a contractor with the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) for a number of years in the mid-late 90s, & USAMRIID was our go-to for information on BW organisms & toxins.

    NB the US offensive BW program was ended by Tricky Dick in 1969. Our tasking was to evaluate how different BW defense postures, including existing & proposed vaccines, antitoxins, antibiotics, & physical protection, would affect Army unit effectiveness in the face of plausible attack scenarios. Airborne transport & diffusion modeling was so imprecise that analysis was restricted to comparative scenarios (such-&-such attack with/without various levels of protection) so that the inaccuracies would cancel out. More of a management tool than anything else – the Army wanted to know whether their proposed lines of R&D could make enough of an impact to deserve funding.

    @Robert Sneddon:

    Smallpox is dangerous but it’s a contained danger even if it was weaponised — we know how to make effective vaccines to combat smallpox and most other related poxes.

    Don’t be so smug, friend – it’s also contagious as hell through the air & the death rate in the bad old pre-vaccination days was 1 in 3, with most of the remainder disfigured for life.

    Anthrax is more problematic hence the public focus on Saddam’s “mobile biological warfare labs” during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

    Anthrax is “problematical” only in pulmonary form – it used to be known as “wool-sorter’s disease” in cutaneous form & it was rarely fatal. Pulmonary anthrax is dangerous only when the particle sizes of the spores are small enough to escape the natural filtration system in the nasopharynx & large enough to lodge in the lung, i.e., not to be breathed out again. There’s a very specific size range (which I know but am not about to tell anyone here, even though I don’t believe it’s classified) that meets those conditions, and although it’s fairly easy to grow a culture of anthrax from dirt in sheep pastures & to turn it into extremely hardy spores (so I’m told – I’m no biologist), the spores tend to clump up electrostatically to aggregations too large.

    As the Aum Shinrikyo cult discovered when they initiated an airborne attack on the city with anthrax spores, hoping to kill tens of thousands. IIRC they dumped the stuff off skyscrapers when the wind was “right” – & it proceeded to gather into clumps too large to stay airborne, fell to the ground, & was washed into the sewers with the next rainfall, & no one even noticed. Only after that fiasco did they brew up sarin & release it in the Tokyo subway. (Narrowly missing a friend of my friend who was teaching over there, who was on the train just before the release.)

    It is exceedingly difficult to stabilize collections of spores in that size range (what is usually meant by “weaponization”); the methods are closely-held secrets, far above my (former) classification level or “need to know”. What scared the bejeezus out of the authorities after 9/11 was that the spores in the anthrax letters was stabilized in the optimal size range for pulmonary infection. IOW, whoever sent those letters knew how to weaponize it.

    Now then: common anthrax can be cured with antibiotics like “cipro” but, like most cancers, it must be caught early enough. Once B. anthracis spores have lodged in the deep lung & had time to (quietly) multiply past a critical point (again, not going to publish the LD50 here), antibiotic treatment will still kill them, but the toxins released upon their demise will kill the host. At least that was the status as of the turn of the millennium.

    At the time the US had a somewhat primitive anthrax vaccine but it was made only in small batches for researchers & others who might be exposed. Someone made a presentation to Bill Clinton in the mid-90s about the risk to troops & he decided the vaccine production program should be ramped up from a few thousand doses to a few million & that all service personnel should get it. All kinds of problems ensued, from side effects to insuffcient potency. (I worked with the producers at the time.) I hope they have a better vaccine now – or that they’ve developed an antitoxin that combined with antibiotic therapy can save lives after diagnosis.

    (Ahem.) Perhaps, Mr Sneddon, from now on you might restrict yourself to topics you actually know something about – or at the very least climb down off your high British horse & admit you’re purely speculating when you’re not an expert in the field, hm?

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