From the heart of Siberia, a team of Russian scientists is working to reawaken ancient viruses, sparking fears of a mishap that could lead to a new pandemic.
Scientists at the Vector Research Center in Russia’s Novosibirsk region are analyzing the remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos and other animals from the Ice Age to identify and revive prehistoric viruses, also known as fossil viruses.
The animals have been preserved almost perfectly in the frozen land of Yakutia, a vast region in northeastern Siberia where winter temperatures can drop to minus 55 degrees Celsius.
The research, which began last year, aims to determine how viruses evolve.
According to a report by the British newspaper “The Times”, the Victor Research Center specializing in virology is a former Soviet biological weapons laboratory, and it is one of 59 biological laboratories with the highest levels of security in the world, and it is also one of two laboratories (the other in America) that are allowed to keep samples of deadly smallpox virus.
Despite this, the reputation of the highly guarded Russian laboratory was damaged after a number of incidents occurred. In 2019, a fire broke out in one of its facilities, injuring a worker and smashing some windows, and the institute denied at that time any virus leakage abroad.
The report adds that in the year 2004, a researcher died after accidentally pricking herself with a needle containing the Ebola virus, and in this regard, French Professor Claverie says: “I would not be completely confident that everything had been updated at the Vector Institute.”
Like all high-security laboratories that contain deadly viruses, the Russian lab is regularly checked by the World Health Organization, and its latest report in 2019 found no major concerns.
However, the WHO team was unable to observe the researchers in the laboratory in practice as the facility was closed due to “scheduled maintenance”.
Cooperation between Western scientists and Moscow has been largely frozen since the start of the Russian war on Ukraine.