Labs on Front Lines of Biowar

Times Staff Writer

They are technically known as BSL-4 laboratories, but the people who work there call them “hot labs,” ultra-secure repositories for the most deadly viruses in the world.

For decades, only three such labs existed in the United States. But the threat of bioterrorism has brought fresh funding, and several more Biosafety Level 4 labs -- those that can handle lethal pathogens -- are now planned.

The newest is a $15.5-million facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. This lab, which will initially be used to study hemorrhagic fevers and tick-borne encephalitis, will by 2007 be dwarfed by a $150-million federally funded complex next door.

On a hurricane-prone barrier island like Galveston, the specter of two buildings storing viruses with no known cure might be cause for alarm. But reaction in this beach community has generally been muted, said Robert Mihovil, past president of a neighborhood association near the university.


“When UTMB first started talking about it a couple of years ago, there was the fear of the unknown, and a few people were pretty vocal about opposing it,” he said. “But UTMB did a good job explaining the security measures. They have backup plan after backup plan after backup plan. Most of us are convinced it’ll be the most secure lab of its kind in the nation, and I live a half-mile away from it.”

The 2,000-square-foot laboratory space, protected by secret-code passageways, air locks and decontamination equipment, is like “a submarine within a bank vault,” said Lee H. Thompson, biosafety director.

Ten-inch thick interior walls are surrounded by another 18 inches of concrete and brick. Researchers must pass through three security checks to get into the lab. Eight security checks, including retina and fingerprint scans, are required to enter the storage room where viruses are kept frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Everything that happens in the lab is carefully controlled, from air circulation to changing a lightbulb.


Before stepping foot into the lab, scientists trade street clothes for a special “biosafety suit” of white polypropylene. Yellow hoses that coil down from the laboratory ceiling snap into the safety suit hoods as the worker moves from area to area, pumping a continuous rush of air around the worker to keep pathogens at bay.

Viruses are handled under stainless steel shields, designed so that air is directed away from the researcher.

Chemical showers decontaminate workers before they reenter the outside world.

The floor above the lab is largely taken up with shoulder-high air filters that push incoming and outgoing air through a series of high efficiency particulate air filters. On a floor beneath the lab, waste water -- from decontamination showers and elsewhere -- is heated and sterilized before it is released.

“We have redundancies across every system.... No pathogen has ever escaped a BSL-4,” said Thompson, who added that Galveston residents have been briefed on the lab’s safety features at community meetings.

If a hurricane threatens Galveston, lab cultures would be autoclaved -- treated by superheated steam under pressure -- to dust, said Tom Curtis, UTMB spokesman. Lab animals that have been exposed to viruses would be euthanized and cremated. Viruses not in use would be locked down in a minus-70-degree freezer.

Lab director C.J. Peters said the mini-boom in hot labs gives scientists flexibility to study how newly identified viruses are transmitted to humans. “We will be working toward understanding and developing interventions,” said Peters.

David Walker, chairman of the pathology department at UTMB, said that for decades, researchers working in hot labs by necessity focused on “how to manage an outbreak or how to protect a solider, not the layers of basic science that we do as scientists.”


Now, he said, researchers at the new labs can work not only to develop biodefense measures but also to study emerging viruses worldwide.