You should be afraid of the next “lab leak”

I asked Davey, as well as Elke Mühlberger, another NEIDL researcher, if they had ever been scared. Once comfortable with the pressurized suits, they say, they experience a sort of joy in the “privileges” of the job, as well as a confidence in the containment measures. For Mühlberger, in fact, working in a level 2 or level 3 facility is riskier than being in a level 4 laboratory, where the security protocol is so strict; the day before her second son gave birth, she told me, she spent the morning working with the Ebola virus in a level 4 laboratory. no cell phones, no email, no chatter – just pathogens and the white noise of the air swirling around his ears. “It’s really, really relaxing,” she says. Her work focuses on the most formidable threats on the planet, she acknowledged. But it’s in many ways an escape from the world itself.

Is this world better with or without high containment biolabs? It is not an easy question to resolve. The work that takes place there involves a significant degree of risk, which is why NEIDL, with its vaults, barricades and ramparts, including operational protocols, looks like a modern day citadel. Yet no amount of engineering, infrastructural or human, can reduce the risk of bad things coming out of biolabs to zero. On the other hand, without them we would run out of all kinds of treatments for diseases like Covid-19 and Ebola. For now, the world seems to agree that we need these facilities.

Next summer, the CDC will inaugurate a new high-containment laboratory complex on its Atlanta campus. One of the ambitions is to complete an aging biolab with a state-of-the-art five-story facility that includes two level 3 suites and six level 4 suites. These will largely be dedicated to the study of case fatality viruses. the most formidable: Ebola, Nipah, Marburg, Chapare. Construction will take approximately three years, followed by a two-year commissioning process to ensure safety expectations are met. The cost was reported to be at least $ 350 million – a significant jump from the $ 280 million (adjusted for inflation) that built the NEIDL facilities. Melissa Pearce, who will oversee the new lab, told me that she and her colleagues at the CDC have visited North American facilities in recent years to study current best practices and design ideas.

Ideas that are too much new will not necessarily be adopted. “When you’re designing a biosafety level 4, the idea of ​​using new technology tends to get you thinking,” Pearce told me. “It’s like the first year of a brand new car model – you tend not to want to buy it, because there are probably some bugs that need to be fixed.” So many of the improvements in Atlanta will likely be incremental. Some of the researchers on the planning team believe that the spaces in the current Level 4 labs are too tight, for example, so there will be more space in the new suites for workers to move around freely. A new chemical shower in the hallway will allow staff to disinfect equipment more effectively.

Talking to the folks at the CDC is to be struck by how close the next pandemic they think we might be – and how badly, if a little-known infectious agent explodes again in the general population, research on the exotic viruses in confinement there and elsewhere will be directing us towards therapies or a cure. This is also expected from NEIDL, where Mühlberger recently worked with the Lloviu virus, a relative of Ebola, which was first identified in bats in Eastern Europe ago. in 10 years. A group in rural Hungary extract small amounts of blood from local bat colonies, looking for Lloviu. If the virus is present, the group sequences and sends the genetic information to it. She then compares its viral properties with other pathogens to better understand the potential dangers. “We don’t know yet whether this causes disease in humans or not,” she said. “But if it causes disease, around 200 million people live in the area where these bats roam. “

When I asked Joel Montgomery, head of the viral special pathogens branch at CDC, if our knowledge of new pathogens is the result of improved surveillance or more viruses with more opportunity to spread in man, he seemed to think both factors were responsible. The ability to test new viruses, thanks to nucleic acid sequencing capabilities, is much better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. “But I think we are interacting with our environment a lot more now than before, and the number of people on the planet has increased,” he said, which also affects population densities. “And so we’re going to see epidemics – epidemics, pandemics – happening more frequently. It will most certainly happen. “

In addition, our high containment facilities may face threats hatched in laboratories as well as what comes from nature. Take, for example, smallpox. The CDC’s Atlanta campus is home to one of two Level 4 labs in the world that harbors the live variola virus, which causes smallpox and was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. (The other cache is in Russia. ) Victoria Olson, assistant director of laboratory science and safety at the CDC, told me the lab keeps samples because studies using a live virus could help scientists develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines in reoccurrence of smallpox or appearance of a similar poxvirus. Monkey pox, which has caused recent epidemics in Africa, where it has a 10 percent death rate, is already a serious concern; Alaskan smallpox was just identified in 2015. More alarming, perhaps, is the potential that someone outside of the world of known biological laboratories could concoct a version of a smallpox virus, using the tools of genetic engineering. Smallpox had an average case fatality rate of about 30%; Americans haven’t been immune to it since 1972. Synthetic smallpox – or even super synthetic smallpox, which could be deadlier than the original – isn’t much of an intellectual leap.

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