Security concerns at laboratories doing research on infectious diseases mean that most of us will never get a look at the inner workings of such labs, the most secure designated as Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4). But because its BSL-4 lab is not yet operational, the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories on the Medical Campus has welcomed a professional video team to tour its inner sanctum. The result is Threading the NEIDL, a one-hour documentary posted today on This Week in Virology, an American Society for Microbiology webcast with about 100,000 regular viewers.
“There is no other facility in the United States that we could have toured in this manner,” says TWIV host Vincent Racaniello. NEIDL is one of just two BSL-4 labs based at academic centers. The second academic facility is at Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, and others are operated by the National Institutes of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I was amazed at the NEIDL,” says Racaniello, who toured the $200 million facility with cohosts Alan Dove and Rich Condit. “The safeguards in place are impressive, and after touring the NEIDL, I was convinced that it is the safest place on Earth to work on dangerous viruses like Ebola and Lassa.”
In the video, Racaniello, Higgins Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia University, Dove, and Condit are accompanied by Ronald Corley, a NEIDL associate director and a School of Medicine professor and chair of microbiology, together with Paul Duprex and Elke Muhlberger, associate professors of microbiology and NEIDL investigators. They begin on the building’s perimeter, where “embassy standard” barriers are strong enough to prevent a 15,000-pound truck going as fast as 50 miles an hour from entering the grounds. All the fences are wired for motion detection. After an iris scan (“Dead eyes are unreadable,” says Corley), the team passes through the equivalent of airport Transportation Security Administration–scanning and then makes its way to the BSL-4 level, a building within a building with 12-inch-thick walls and 14-inch heavily rebarred concrete flooring.
When Racaniello asks about the risk of earthquakes, Corley’s response is reassuring. While the greater NEIDL structure is built into the bedrock, the BSL-4 floors are flexible and can move with a different frequency than the main structure. If there is any contamination—a leak, or spill—the rooms fill with vaporized hydrogen peroxide or vaporized formaldehyde, he explains, and the thick walls are coated with multiple layers of epoxy resin to ease cleanup.
Environmental health and safety expert and trainer John Tonkiss coaches the team as they wriggle into cumbersome protective suits and boots, and helps them practice moving from ventilating hose to hose—an unhooked hose can become “a missile,” he says. Lost in the suits and tethered to the hoses, the team has difficulty with simple movements, like settling into a chair. Rancaniello speaks through the whoosh sound of the suit (“You need to expel the air in the suit to feel comfortable,” Tonkiss says) and gets the feel of the gloves as he cradles a pipette. Actual BSL-4 researchers undergo “full suit training,” which is far more rigorous.
The group winds its way through the animal rooms, including a procedure room and a holding room. The rooms are likely to accommodate a range or rodents as well as nonhuman primates, according to Duprex. Corley later leads the group, unsuited and once again mobile, up and into a dense, hissing forest of pipes—the HEPA filters and compressors in the “box within a box” of that protected shell. It’s as if the entire BSL-4 lab were on advanced life support.
Corley, along with MED colleagues Duprex and Muhlberger, sat down for a video interview with Rancaniello last September for TWIV’s 200th webcast. “We thought that because NEIDL’s BSL-4 area wasn’t open this might be a good opportunity for the video tour, because it can’t be done once the lab is open and functioning,” he says. The TWIV television crew spent two days at the site, and Corley hopes the webcast’s “unprecedented view” will serve as “an education piece.” The shoot was also “a lot of fun,” he says. The film was vetted by NEIDL’s security group, which identified certain scenes that might pose a security risk, and Corley says those scenes were deleted from the footage.
BSL-4 clearance is required for labs that work with pathogens that pose a risk of life-threatening disease. In the most recent development on its way to full operation, last week NEIDL received BSL-3 and BSL-4 approval from the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The agency issued a Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) certificate on March 2, clearing the way for the issuance of final state permits for the project. Boston University will now request permission from the Boston Public Health Commission to transfer ongoing BSL-3 research from an existing BSL-3 lab on the Medical Campus to the NEIDL. BSL-4 research will not begin until some additional regulatory and judicial determinations are made.