Scientist alarmed over Russia’s ‘risky’ attempt to awaken virus

These prehistoric viruses are thought to be up to 400,000 years old and have remained dormant in the frozen remains of woolly mammoths found in Yakutia, Russia, where temperatures can plummet to -55C. This research is being conducted by the Russian Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology.

The Russian lab, also known as Vector aims to understand how viruses evolve by studying such diseases.

The project is being overseen at a former bioweapons lab in Russia’s Novosibirsk region, but Vector hosts 59 maximum security biolabs around the world.

Russian researchers hope to identify the ice age viruses, also named paleoviruses, and revive them.

However, experts have raised concerns about the research, describing it as “risky” and confessing to a lack of confidence in the research facility.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Center of Scientific Research at the University of Aix-Marseille recently spoke with the Times to express his alarm.

He said:[Vector’s research] is terrible. I’m totally against it.

“[It] is very, very risky. Our immune systems have never encountered these types of viruses. Some of them could be 200,000 or even 400,000 years old.

“But ancient viruses that infected animals or humans could still be infectious.”

As for trusting Vector’s biosecurity, the scientist added: “I would not be very confident that everything is up to date.”

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The World Health Organization found no significant concern during their most recent inspection of the facility in 2019, but the facility has had incidences in the past.

In 2019, a gas explosion caused a fire at a Vector facility, which caused one worker to be left with third-degree burns from the blast.

It also caused windows to shatter, but at the time Vector said: “no work with biological materials was going on”.

Another incident at a Vector lab happened in 2014 when a researcher died after accidentally pricking herself with a needle containing the Ebola virus.

During the Soviet era in 1979, one of Vector’s military research facilities accidentally released spores of anthrax bacteria in the city of Sverdlovsk (now named Yekaterinburg).

The deadly outbreak killed at least 66 people, although Soviet authorities denied for years that such an incident had taken place and blamed the deaths on the consumption of tainted meat.

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Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, has warned that even the most secure laboratories can be breached.

She said: “Many of us who are analyzing and following what they’re doing aren’t convinced that the potential benefits, which are in the far distant future, are necessarily outweighing the very real risks that are in the present.

“Even with generally safe practices, accidents can still happen.”

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