While the flu season may be winding down, research into infectious diseases at the University is taking a step forward.
Researchers at the School of Medicine and School of Public Health will soon enjoy a new, Level 3 biosafety laboratory — which can support research on such diseases as the West Nile Virus, SARS, Yellow Fever and anthrax. The lab, which is projected to open in January or February on the ninth floor of the YSPH, will be the only BSL-3 at Yale and will be larger and more modern than the BSL-3 lab that preceded it. The facility will support both animal and non-animal BSL-3 research, while its predecessor only supported non-animal research, YSM Dean Robert Alpern said.
“We did have a BSL-3 before,” he said, “This is just a better one — it’s larger and more modern.”
A BSL-3 is defined as a lab suitable for the study of infectious agents that are capable of causing potentially fatal diseases that can be contracted via inhalation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccinations and or some form of treatment exist for all agents handled in a BSL-3. It is the second highest level of biosafety lab — the highest being a BSL-4.
As a result, before it is operational, the lab must undergo a thorough certification process. Officials involved with the project worked closely with investigators who helped ensure that its design was fully compliant with all regulations pertaining to BSL-3 animal and non-animal research, Alpern said.
“We are going through all precautionary measures,” Charles Hogen, deputy director of public affairs, said of the final steps needed to obtain the certificate of occupancy. “They are now testing the systems.”
Some of the defining safeguards of a BSL-3 include double-door entries, waterproof ceilings and a single-pass air flow system that does not re-circulate exhaust air into other rooms, according to the CDC. Additionally, wall, ceiling and floor penetrations are sealed to keep aerosols inside the facility and all work with agents must be done inside compliant cases.
Despite the numerous physical precautions in place, things can go awry. In 1994, a virologist, whose name was withheld from the press, left the Yale BSL-3 lab after he had contracted the Sabia virus when a centrifuge bottle containing tissue cracked and leaked, releasing aerosolized virus particles. Though he recovered after 15 days, the University stopped research on the virus following the incident.
Still, when told about the new lab and the 1994 accident, students interviewed were not overly concerned.
“The benefits outweigh the costs,” Annie Creager ’11 said. “There are clearly dangers but the potential for furthering the understanding of the diseases and creating vaccines and treatments makes them pale in comparison.”
After all, the agents handled in a BSL-3 lab are treatable, which is not the case for agents handled in a BSL-4 lab — the primary difference between a BSL-3 and a BSL-4.
BSL-4 agents include the Ebola virus and Sabia, which was reclassified as a BSL-4 after 1994 — potentially due to the mishap at Yale — even though it is generally treatable with Ribavirin, an anti-viral drug.
In addition to complying with all of the safety precautions of a BSL-3, personnel working in a BSL-4 are required to wear full-body, positive pressure, air-supplied personnel suits and must shower before exiting.
While most institutions in the United States with infectious disease research programs have BSL-3 laboratories in the United States, there are only four operational BSL-4 laboratories, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The National Institute of Medicine has announced that there is a national shortage of BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories so currently the NIAID is funding the construction of four new national biodisease research facilities, each of which will contain BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory suites and BSL-2 space.“There are a lot of new viruses emerging all over the world and we need to be able to study them,” Alpern said. “You certainly don’t want to endanger our people, so you build these facilities.”
The ninth floor of the YSPH building, where the lab will be built, was previously used for laboratory work and animal storage.