A look inside the biosafety lab

Get on your hard hats, everyone, we’re going inside the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. It’s still a construction site, so safety first!

This is one of only two photos I shot yesterday — pictures are not allowed inside, and with good reason. A year from now, this is going to be the most secure place in Grafton. They stress this, repeatedly. It will be surrounded by sturdy fencing and monitored by cameras both inside and out. All personnel will have to pass an extensive background check and psychological evaluation and badges will be required at multiple points in the building for access. Any visitors to the facility must be pre-screened and on the list, or else they’re not getting by the first checkpoint.

And if someone is determined to use force to get inside? The glass is bulletproof. The entrance can withstand explosions.

At this point, you might be wondering: what the heck is this place?

The $31 million New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory will study food and water borne illnesses and emerging infectious diseases and will be one of only 13 regional biosafety laboratories in the United States. It is a Level 3 facility, which means one of its two laboratories will be outfitted to study infectious agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal diseases through inhalation.

All right, I realize at this point that you’re having one of two reactions. You may possibly be hyperventilating. Go get a paper bag and breathe into it slowly as you read the rest of this post, and be sure to look at the links I’m sprinkling throughout. Or, if you’re like me, you’re saying “coooool.” Hang on and geek out with me, will you?

“You might be wondering why we need this here, at a veterinary school, rather than a medical school,” said Dean Deborah Kochevar, DVM, PhD. “In the last 20 years, if you look at the infectious diseases that have emerged, most of them are zoonotic — they have crossed over into humans from animals.”

I’ll give you some examples here: Lyme disease, which has a tick vector. Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile virus, spread by mosquitos. SARS, which may have initially spread to humans from civet cats sold as food in China.

Incidentally, the Cummings School already has a small Level 3 laboratory onsite, where an extensive study of tularemia is underway. (Here’s an article on Sam Telford, who is heading up the studies.) Kochevar was unsure whether that program would be moved to the new building.

Now scroll back up to the photographs of the building and you’ll notice there are only three windows on the side. That’s it. The Level 3 laboratory is completely closed off from the outside world. All specimens are handled inside containment cabinets. All personnel undergo decontamination on leaving the lab and anything that was inside — clothing, gloves, equipment — is irradiated to kill off contaminants.

You may be worried about air. The building has a constant flow system, with no air recirculated inside. Here’s a stat from Jack McDonald, the project’s construction manager: 100 percent of the air inside the building comes from the outside, compared to only 10 percent in the average office building. Before the air goes back outside, it’s passed through a series of cleaning filters.

“If you examine the air that comes out of the building — it’s actually cleaner than it is coming through the door,” Kochevar said.

Naturally, a facility that studies animal-borne diseases will be home to a fair number of animals, mostly rats and mice and “up to the size of small piglets,” Kochevar said. No primates will be studied. Insects will also be housed there.

Protocols will be in place to ensure that no live animals or insects ever leave the building. Their bodies will be disposed of using method that will ensure diseases will not live. And, yes, the water used to clean their cages, along with all water that passes through the facility, will be run through a cleaning system before it goes back into Grafton sewers.

At this point, they’ve been talking a lot about mechanicals, so they showed them to us. Basically, of the four floors of the facility, only one is taken up by actual research space. The rest is all mechanicals — giant HEPA filters, pipes that look like something out of Super Mario. Everything has a backup system. There will be formulas in place to ensure that filters will be changed on time, systems will be recalibrated.

Over all, there will be about 30 people working in the building and only a select few will actually have access to infectious agents (I love that term), and they will all be screened by the FBI and CDC and monitored closely even after passing background checks, Kochevar said.

The biosafety lab is expected to be the cornerstone of the Grafton Science Park, which Tufts also owns. It is expected that companies in need of its services, like a vaccine developer, may relocate to the park to be close to the lab. Tenants who sign on will be a source of revenue for the town.

“It’s a very unique opportunity for a private university to provide revenue for the town on what is now untaxed space,” Kochevar said.

The building itself is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Actual commissioning will take about 3-6 months as the facility, personnel and protocols are vetted by the CDC, among other government agencies.

Want some more links? Donna Boynton of the Telegram toured last month. (I love that she referred to it as “an onion of security.” That’s a fantastic visual.) And here’s another T&G story about campus construction.

The university will be running tours of the facility once a month until it opens. In the meantime, if you have further questions, Tom Keppeler, associate director of public relations, says he would be more than happy to answer any questions or get the answers he doesn’t have — you may reach him at 508-839-7910, or you can be less direct and post questions in the comments section here.

More details: Realized as I drove in to work that I left out a couple things. One: Grafton officials will be kept informed about what infectious agents are going into the lab. Two: They will have only “scientific amounts” available for study — they’re not stockpiling enough for, say, biological weapons. Also, fun fact from yesterday: anthrax is only classified as a Level 2, but those that study it always treat it as a Level 3 specifically because of the potential for abuse.

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3 thoughts on “A look inside the biosafety lab

  1. Did they talk at all about worst case scenario/what ifs? For example, if – despite of all their effort – something did happen and the outside area was jeopardized by a level 3 classified substance. Do town officials/bio safety folks have plans in place to handle this? In particular, I wonder how both the commuter train & North Grafton Elementary would be handled.

  2. Hi, Michael!

    Great question…. while this specific question did not come up at yesterday’s tour, no questions are out-of-bounds. I encourage you to come to one.

    The New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory is part of a network of 13 laboratories commissioned by the National Institutes of Health. The agents that Tufts University investigates are closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As such, we have two federal agencies that require that we have gone through a great amount of planning for every possible scenario before the laboratory is used.

    The Town of Grafton’s Board of Health, fire and police departments, and, most notably, the Local Emergency Planning Committee, have been consulted in creating the plans for every possible scenario. It is important to note that this laboratory is designed with the safety of workers–and, by extension, the town–in mind. Although specific response plans aren’t discussed, for obvious security reasons, they have been thought through and are required as part of the commissioning and certification process.

    Tufts is also required to review all standard operating procedures regularly and hold drills with both internal and external agencies. I welcome you to come for a tour of the NE-RBL so that we can walk you through the safety precautions built into the facility. I think it’s worth noting that less than one-quarter of the lab’s 41,000 square feet are working laboratory spaces, whereas the remaining space is taken up by redundant mechanical systems designed to ensure the cleanest and safest conditions for academic research.

    Sincerely,

    Tom Keppeler
    Assoc. Director for Public Relations
    Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
    Tufts University
    tom.keppeler@tufts.edu

  3. Michael, I forwarded your question to Tom Keppeler and he planned to get back to us on that (and aha, his answer was waiting in the queue while I was writing this). He also made some suggestions, which I used to tweak the post some (I don’t care if Web 2.0 gives power of information to the people. I want a freaking editor who can catch when I misspell zoonotic and says “but what about…” when I’ve completely missed something. Or assumed everyone understands what I’m writing about, which is a constant pitfall in health writing).

    I didn’t want to add to the already lengthy post, but I’ll also add this from Keppeler’s email:

    “I think it also might be important to differentiate between the Biosafety Levels (1-4) and select agents. The biosafety level refers to the precautions a researcher is recommended to undertake vis-à-vis the potential risk the agent they’re investigating poses. Here’s a great explanation of the Biosafety levels from the CDC:
    http://www.cdc.gov/OD/ohs/biosfty/bmbl4/bmbl4s3.htm. Select agents, on the other hand, are pathogens that the federal government has determined are the most worthy of understanding to prevent a bioterrorist attack. So, things
    like botulinum or anthrax, which are categorized as BSL-2, are considered select agents–and, as such, strict handling, custody, and containment protocols must be employed in facilities where they’re studied. As far as
    the anthrax goes, it’s usually studied with BSL-3 precautions not because of the potential for abuse, but because anthrax spores are so difficult to kill! We currently do not study anthrax.”

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