In Galveston, scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch are doing their final checks on the new level four biosafety lab, or BSL four. BSL four labs have the tightest safety controls, so scientists can work with the deadliest and most dangerous pathogens on the planet — germs like Ebola. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel took a tour in the last months before the viruses are brought in and the lab goes "hot." After that, only approved researchers can get in and out.
In the 1995 movie "Outbreak," Dustin Hoffman plays a virus hunter like the ones at UTMB. In this scene, Hoffman tries to stop an Ebola-like virus that has escaped from Africa to America.
The script takes many liberties with the science. One of the most amusing examples is Hoffman claiming it will take only one month to unlock the viruses’ genetic code. In real-life, Dr. C.J. Peters at UTMB has been studying Rift Valley Fever for decades. It’s a mosquito-borne illness that infects African livestock, but can also jump to humans, causing blindness, brain damage or death.
Peters says Rift Valley Fever could easily invade the U.S., just like West Nile virus did in 1999. He’s working on a more effective vaccine.
"Whenever you’re developing a vaccine like this, you may be able to work with it at level 2 or level 3, but when you’re going to challenge it with the wild-type virus, to see if the vaccine really works, you’re going to need level 4."
There are less than a dozen Level 4 labs in the U.S.. UTMB has operated a very small one since 2004 — but the new one is much larger, a product of the post-9/11 focus on bioterrorism. The federal government gave UTMB $115 million dollars to build it.
The researchers here have to answer a lot of questions. First of all, why Galveston? Here’s Dr. James LeDuc, the lab’s director.
"There’s a tremendous history of tropical medicine in Galveston. We’ve had outbreaks of yellow fever. In fact, in the lobby, you can see photographs of an outbreak of plague that occurred here in the 1920s. We’ve had lots of very close intimate experience with infectious diseases, especially those transmitted by arthropods."
Arthropods are mosquitoes. There’s no question Galveston has lots of those. But it also has hurricanes. LeDuc says the building is designed to handle them.
"We had literally no damage at all to the building during Hurricane Ike, which was very, very fortunate, but also demonstrated that you could build a very secure facility in an area that is frequented by hurricanes."
The elements are kept out, and the infectious diseases are kept in, behind fierce biological ramparts. There are armed guards 24/7. Scientists undergo federal background checks, hundreds of hours of training, and must pass through multiple doors using thumbprints, badges and codes.
"So this is a buffer corridor…"
That’s Dr. Tom Ksiazek, an expert in hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. He’s showing me the maze-like path that scientists must use to enter the lab.
First there’s a locker room where researchers take off their street clothes and put on scrubs. Then a few more air-lock style doors bring them to a room where they put on a helmeted HAZMAT suit. Once encased, workers must hook into dangling hoses that provide pressurized breathing air. To move deeper into the lab, scientists move from hose to hose, connecting and detaching as they go.
It takes at least 15 minutes to get in, and longer to come out.
"One of the things that you learn is if you’re going in for any significant time, is to go to the toilet before you go and not to drink a lot of coffee."
Inside the lab, the surfaces are eerily smooth. The floors and ceilings are seamless, the walls are ten inches thick. It would be very, very quiet, except that powerful fans are continually cycling air through the lab, pushing it through three layers of air filters. The actual lab work is done inside special cabinets, so it’s not like deadly pathogens are floating through the air or settling onto the counters or floors. They are always inside something – either a container or a lab animal. Again, Ksiazek.
"Some people sort of have the idea that a BSL 4 laboratory is this place that is teeming with infectious organisms, and actually everything is done to keep that from being the case. This would violate every protocol in the world but on an ordinary day I wouldn’t hesitate to walk into a BSL 4 lab without a space suit on and get out a sandwich and eat it. It’s that clean."
That’s the vault-like door to the chemical shower. Researchers will exit the lab through that door, pausing for an 8-minute shower that drenches the suit with disinfectants. Then it’s off with the space suit, and the scrubs, followed by a regular shower and shampoo. Equipment and scrubs are sent out through sterilizing ovens. Nothing leaves this lab alive except human beings.
UTMB has been building its infectious disease faculty for two decades, and now has 130 people doing research on germs like SARS and H1N1, and bioterror threats like anthrax. The scientists seem hopeful that a significant vaccine against one of these threats could come out of Galveston in the coming years.