Medical Examiner

Is Siberia a Safe Place for Smallpox?

Sort of.

Novosibirsk winter
Aside from the concrete block buildings tessellating out into forever, Novosibirsk is actually more like Minneapolis than many Americans realize. 

Photo by Valery Titievsky/AFP/Getty Images

On July 1, a researcher cleaning out a cold storage room at the Food and Drug Administration came across a stash of six vials of smallpox virus stored inside a cardboard box. Considering that the World Health Assembly deems smallpox a public health threat so apocalyptic that live samples may be handled only in hermetically sealed labs by scientists wearing full-body suits with their own air supplies, this was the equivalent of finding an atomic bomb in a dorm fridge next to last night’s cheese fries.  

The discovery was only the latest in a string of discomfiting incidents involving deadly pathogens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the newfound samples were sent for testing and destruction, recently closed down some major labs while it reviews mishandling of live anthrax and highly virulent strains of avian influenza.

The stray smallpox renewed interest in the two lonely remaining stores of live variola virus left in the world, one of which is housed at the CDC repository in Atlanta, Georgia, the other of which can be found at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, also known as the Vector Institute, about 12 miles from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Remarkably, the fact that there’s smallpox in Siberia has some people more freaked out than the discovery of smallpox in Besthesda, Maryland, 650 miles away from the nearest authorized facility. As someone who lived and worked in Novosibirsk on and off for six years, I’m well aware of Westerners’ unchanging impression of Siberia as the sinister home of permafrost, gulags, and mysterious hunks of rock that fall from the sky. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1978. The Soviet GULAG system was officially dismantled in 1960. Yet neither of these horrors ever died in the public imagination. Tell an American that smallpox is housed in Siberia, and the image that comes to mind is that of a grizzled man perched on the wrecked spire of a prison watchtower, waving a test tube with all the accumulated pain of Stalin’s purges shining in his eyes.

But aside from the concrete block buildings tessellating out into forever, Novosibirsk is actually more like Minneapolis. It’s not even that cold.

Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia. It is home to a devastatingly clean and efficient subway system, a cool alternative paper, and enough coffee chains and sushi joints to put the entire cast of Girls at ease. Siberia is also a surprisingly progressive place. Far from the commotion in Moscow over Pussy Riot, the mayor of Novosibirsk recently quietly approved a plaque honoring the late Siberian punk singer Yanka Dyagileva. There’s even an Ikea—just like in Atlanta!

But just because Siberia is no longer the stuff of Solzhenitsynian nightmare, does that mean that it’s a safe place for smallpox? The answer is a definite … sort of.

The good news is that Siberia’s isolation and the comparative ease of quarantining anyone accidentally exposed to the virus is a big plus. Prior to 1994, Russia’s variola strains were stored in a defense lab at the back of a former Moscow school. Smallpox was moved to Vector because it was safer, and because the more sophisticated facilities there would allow scientists to study the virus, not merely Alcatraz it.

Vector had been expanding continuously since it was first established in 1975, and by the time of the smallpox transfer, it occupied a sprawling campus of almost 50 acres and employed more than 4,500 people. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government invested heavily in Vector, helping it grow into a world-class facility. A reinforced concrete wall already encircled the perimeter, and high-tech fences, motion detectors, and other infrastructure improvements designed to reduce biohazards were soon added. Two years ago, an evaluation team from the World Health Organization spent six days at Vector and identified no significant security risks.

Perhaps most importantly, scientists at Vector have made impressive contributions to smallpox research. According to Kevin Hendzel, an expert on U.S.–Russian nonproliferation issues, the scientists at Koltsovo don’t get enough credit for the “huge volume of important work to sequence [smallpox] genetic code and work out various vaccines and treatments for outbreaks in collaboration with the U.S.” The researchers at Vector are also smart enough not to accidentally spark a global pandemic while doing so. “It takes years of advanced training and a massive infrastructure to even touch this stuff without inadvertently killing all the scientists and support staff,” Hendzel points out. “Any adversary without the training, infrastructure, means of transport, and ability to isolate or weaponize the material is far more likely to do something stupid and die before they can use it as a weapon. Like 10,000 times more likely.” Case in point: In 2004, when a worker at Vector accidentally pricked herself with Ebola virus, she was the only one who died. See? Safe.*

On the other hand, Vector has not been devoid of sketchiness. In 1992, Kanatjan Alibekov, a defector to the United States who had been involved in Russia’s biological warfare program, identified Vector as a site where research was being conducted on weaponizing viruses.

More troubling is the institute’s post-Soviet reputation for secrecy. According to Jonathan B. Tucker, author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, transparency at Vector “decreased sharply” after 2005, when the Russian government put a Communist-throwback apparatchik, Ilyia G. Drozdov, in charge. Since then, attendance of Vector virologists at WHO meetings has grown spotty. When Vector reps do appear, they make unnerving pronouncements. At a WHO Advisory Committee meeting in late 2008, Vector scientists announced they’d shifted all their smallpox from glass to plastic vials (highly risky due to the aforementioned threat of mass annihilation) and decided to destroy nearly 25 percent of their smallpox stock without warning.   

But ultimately, there are so many other things to worry about when it comes to smallpox that the potential for dodginess at the Vector Institute should be the least of our worries. First off, as the discovery of the smallpox samples in Bethesda proves, there is no guarantee that we’ve truly eliminated all remaining stocks save for those at the CDC and Vector. In 1980, the WHO essentially asked any countries possessing live smallpox to raise their hands and voluntarily destroy extant samples. But as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proves, the honor system is far from foolproof when it comes to geopolitics.

Even if a rogue nation hasn’t managed to get its hands on variola, that doesn’t mean a rogue scientist with the right credentials can’t just walk into either of the WHO-approved reference labs and steal some. After all, the FBI determined that the culprit behind the 2001 anthrax attacks wasn’t some zealot in a balaclava, but microbiologist and senior bio-defense researcher Bruce Edwards Ivins. Then there’s the looming threat that scientists will soon simply be able to manufacture synthetic smallpox using off-the-shelf chemicals.

But if we really want to focus our worries on smallpox in Siberia, why not fixate on the human smallpox carriers popping up outside the Vector Institute, en plein air? I’m talking about corpses: ancient smallpox victims, emerging from the permafrost.

Whereas recent discoveries of 19th-century smallpox victims (or just their scabs) in the United States have failed to turn up viable variola samples, scientists hold out hope that frozen Siberian mummies might better preserve the virus and help answer questions about the virus’ longevity. Scientists at Vector actually trekked up to Yakutia back in 1991 when centuries-old remains of a family that had died of smallpox surfaced. They failed to extract any viable virus, but a second cache of smallpox mummies discovered in the same area in 2004 did yield enough DNA for scientists to partially reconstruct its sequence.

So weighing the accumulated smallpox threats, accidents, security breaches, and SNAFUs on both sides of the globe, I say go to Novosibirsk and relax. Take in the opera, marvel at the Constructivist architecture, and check out the Museum of the Sun. But if you stumble across a thawing corpse—just hold your breath and whatever you do, don’t eat its scabs.

*Correction, June 4, 2015: This article misstated the year in which a worker died of Ebola. It was in 2004, not 1994.