There has been an explosion at one of the only two facilities that house the last smallpox samples left in the world.
Smallpox, the ancient disease caused by the variola virus, was officially declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979 after a global vaccination program proved successful.
The last person to die of smallpox, which killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone, occurred in the summer of 1978. Janet Parker, a medical photographer, became smallpox's final victim after coming into contact with a sample of the disease in a smallpox laboratory at Birmingham Medical School, England. Whilst she and her close family were quarantined, the world's media descended on Birmingham to wait and see whether the deadly disease would emerge once more. It did, and Parker died.
Professor Henry Bedson, who headed the smallpox lab, died by suicide before Parker's death was confirmed, horrified that he may have released the disease he'd been working hard to eradicate into the world once more.
"I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work," he wrote in a note, believing that the virus had escaped from his laboratory, which government reports would later confirm.
Only one other person, Parker's mother, was infected, mildly, and she was soon free of the infection. A year after the incident, smallpox was declared eradicated entirely.
Finally free from the disease, the decision was made to destroy all remaining stocks of smallpox, or move them to one of two secure laboratories – one in the US and one in Russia – where the last samples of the disease remain to this day.
In Russia, smallpox is kept at the Virology and Biotechnology Center (or Vector) in Novosibirsk, a former Cold War-era Soviet bioweapons lab, that also houses and researches anthrax and ebola. Though security at the research facility is high, with reinforced concrete walls, high-tech fences, and motion detectors, a scientist at the facility died 15 years ago after accidentally sticking herself with a needle contaminated with Ebola, leading to concerns about safety at the center.
On Monday, part of the facility erupted in flame following a blast during scheduled repair work.
"There was an explosion of a gas cylinder with a fire on the 5th floor of a six-story reinforced concrete laboratory building in the sanitary inspection room being repaired," Vector said in a statement.
"No work with biological material on the body was carried out. One person was injured, building structures were not damaged."
The employee, who suffered burns on his legs, was taken to hospital according to local reports, whilst the laboratory stressed that no biohazardous substances had been released from the facility, and there was no threat to the general population.
Much more worrying is that melting permafrost could thaw a smallpox graveyard in Siberia.