You need a special lab to study the coronavirus. Here’s what it takes to get one up and running

Before the pandemic, there was only a small group of researchers dedicated to studying coronaviruses. Now though, scientists around the world are turning their focus to the virus called SARS-CoV-2.

There’s a snag, however. While researchers can more easily study the genetic sequence of the virus or the epidemiology of the pandemic, conducting a full suite of experiments with the actual virus has to be done in laboratories certified as biosafety level 3, or BSL-3.

Only some facilities have these labs, which need special airflow systems and two sets of self-closing and locking doors, along with regular inspections. There’s not one federal agency that tracks the number of BSL-3 labs, though there are at least 200 in the U.S. that have registered with one government program that tracks some of this research.

At the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, there happened to be an unused BSL-3 facility, one that once housed the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. The research organization is now getting the lab recertified and cleared by a biosafety committee from the University of California, with which Gladstone is affiliated. It will allow a team to study SARS-CoV-2 without having to squeeze into another BSL-3 lab where scientists are already working on other pathogens.

“We could not build a new BSL-3 now,” said Gladstone virologist Melanie Ott. “This would take years. Because you have to make structural changes in the way that the air flows, it has to be completely separate from all the air flow in the building and has to be specifically filtered.”

STAT recently spoke with Ott about the facility and what’s needed for a BSL-3 lab. (There is an even more secure level; BSL-4 pathogens include Ebola and Marburg.) Members of her research team are also undergoing the training required for working in the lab, which is expected to be up and running in a few weeks.

Ott said that studying BSL-3 pathogens does assume some risk — researchers in the lab have to wear protective equipment — but given the spread of the coronavirus, “I would say that working in this laboratory is probably much safer than going to the supermarket around the corner.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you describe the space where this is being restarted?

The thing that we have done in the past few weeks is to recertify it and have all the right inspections to make sure the facility is tested from top to bottom. It involves the airway system, it involves the autoclave system [a heating container that can sterilize equipment], it involves the monitors at the door that show who is in and who is out. It involves just a lot of technical pieces. But in general what we needed was to make sure that what we had was functioning properly and so far, I think it looks pretty good.

Currently we’re equipping it. That laboratory was mainly used as an animal laboratory. We’re now making it a cell culture and an animal laboratory. So it has two rooms basically. We’re currently moving equipment from the rest of the institute into the laboratory so we don’t have to wait for delivery of new equipment.

The real bottleneck is the protective gear. You have to wear a Tyvek suit and a respirator, and those are currently at short supply. We’re hoping to get that on schedule, but you never know these days.

Another bottleneck is the training. You have to undergo rigorous training to go into this facility. We’re doing that with colleagues in the other BSL-3 facilities at UC San Francisco who are really generously helping, so we’re not delayed. You have to be trained, you have to be certified, and you have to get checked that you’re doing everything correctly.

I imagine if you have to put all that gear on, you go into this lab for a certain amount of time. You block off time so it’s not like you can run out of a phone call or something. So are you only in there on some days or for certain amounts of time?

Everything takes double the time in a laboratory like this. And every time you go in there, you have to write a protocol and get it approved. What are you doing and how are you doing it? How are you getting rid of the specimens? So you cannot just say, OK, now I have this laboratory and now I can do whatever I want.

What kind of research projects are you hoping to get started once the lab is ready?

The only thing that the BSL-3 gives us is, we can work with live virus. We can work to see if we can inhibit the spread of the virus in cells in culture and study the cytopathicity of the virus — how it makes the cell sick, basically.

We’ve also created organoids of the lung tissue. We think that these might be helpful in studying this virus.

You’re not a coronavirologist by background. What kind of research do you normally do?

I’m originally a neurologist but switched to virology in the ’90s during the AIDS crisis. I was in Frankfurt. It was very similar to now — there were not treatments available, many people infected and terminally sick. So I decided I wanted to dig deeper into the virus and learn more and maybe make a difference.

I’ve continued to work on viruses the last 30 years, initially on HIV, then hepatitis C and Zika virus in the last few years.

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