The plug will literally be pulled on the D. I. Ivanovsky Institute of Virology in Moscow next week if the institute cannot pay its 800,000 roubles (US$30,000) debt to its electricity provider, Mosenergo.
The institute's directors claim that much of its unique collection of viruses will be lost within hours of the electricity shut-down, as its supply of liquid nitrogen will not stretch to saving all strains. If this happens, another Russian scientific treasure will have fallen victim to the country's economic difficulties.
The institute's only income is from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. And, according to the institute's deputy director Petr Deryabin, it has no hope of raising the money by the 12 September deadline.
Mosenergo has already extended the original deadline by two weeks in acknowledgement of “the uniqueness of the institute”. The debt has been accumulating since the beginning of last year.
Government departments have refused to help out, and the institute's international grants can only be used for designated research work, not for paying energy bills. “No one will be able to do any work without electricity, and the institute will have to close,” says Deryabin. Moreover, he adds, it will be difficult to maintain safety conditions for containing the viruses.
The virus collection — more than 6,000 strains from 18 families — has been gathered over the past 60 years from around the former Soviet Union and through gifts and exchanges from virologists abroad. “It is an important collection historically and geographically,” says Steve Elie, head of pathobiology at the chemical and biological defence laboratories of Britain's Ministry of Defence.
Brian Mahy at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the threat is “extraordinary” considering the institute's value. The Ivanovsky Institute holds important collections of arthropod-borne viruses, he says, some of which have been collected from remote parts of the former Soviet Union and will be impossible to replace.
Particularly important, he says, is the institute's collection of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. West Nile disease broke out in Russia a couple of years ago and reached the United States for the first time last year, causing five deaths in New York. The institute also has the world's best collection of tick-borne encephalitis viruses, says Mahy.
Despite facing the same difficulties as all Russian public research institutes, the institute has remained active. For example, it is a reference centre for monitoring influenza and other viral diseases for the World Health Organization.
The institute's director Dmitry Lvov, says that the collection “is one of Russia's real treasures and the country is going to lose it. It is a real tragedy.” Lvov has asked various government departments for help. But he says the only response was from the Russian sanitary office, which sent a letter of protest to Mosenergo.