I Study Coronavirus in a Highly Secured Biosafety Lab – Here’s Why I Feel Safer Here Than in the World Outside
By Troy Sutton
It's quiet in the laboratory, almost peaceful. But I'm holding live SARS-CoV-2 in my hands and this virus is not to be taken lightly.
As I dilute the coronavirus to infect cultured cells, I hear the reassuring sound of purified air being blown by my respirator into my breathing space. There are three layers of nitrile and protective materials between me and the virus, and every part of my body is wrapped in protective equipment.
Thanks to these precautions and other features of our high containment lab, I'm not nervous about being up close and personal with this dangerous pathogen.
As an expert on respiratory virus transmission and vaccine development, I've halted all other research in my lab so we can devote our expertise to studying SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The goal is to understand the virus and develop a vaccine, fast.
We do this research in what's called a high-containment biosafety level 3-enhanced lab, with stringent precautions in place to protect everyone from the potentially deadly pathogens we work with. In addition to SARS-CoV-2, researchers study the microbes that cause diseases including tuberculosis, anthrax and avian influenza in other facilities of this type across the U.S.
As a result of our precautions, many colleagues have told me they feel safer inside the containment lab than they do shopping for groceries during the pandemic. Here's why.
Biosafety levels are defined by how much risk is involved in working with particular pathogens. The Conversation, CC BY-ND
Suiting Up Like You’re on a Space Mission
When performing a SARS-CoV-2 experiment, my days start by coordinating with a least one of my lab members – we always work in pairs inside containment. We outline the experiment step-by-step, check we have all of the required supplies, confirm and review any procedures and communicate with the facility staff.
First thing on site, we check multiple gauges and monitors to ensure the facility is functioning properly. Then we enter the changeroom, where we remove all of our street clothes, including jewelry and underwear. We don't want to bring any potentially contaminated clothing or items out of containment at the end of the day. "You enter and leave containment as you were at birth" is our saying.
We don scrubs, close-toed laboratory shoes, a full-body disposable suit, shoe covers, multiple pairs of gloves and a surgical gown. Most importantly, we also put on our air-purifying respirators. This device includes a Batman-style utility belt that houses a motor attached to an air filter capable of filtering out any infectious agents in the air. Powered by a battery pack that will last at least six hours, the respirator blows purified air up a tube into a hood that covers my entire head and shoulders. The hood is under positive pressure so no air from the environment can enter my breathing space.
Through the clear plastic face shield I can see that we look like astronauts in space suits. Once fully equipped, we enter the containment facility and proceed to our designated virus culture and animal holding rooms. This whole process has taken between 30 and 45 minutes.
Inside the lab, experiments are done under a vented hood that sucks air away to be filtered. Penn State, CC BY-ND
The facility itself is a giant vacuum. All of the air flows from outside into the lab. It exhausts through air filters that remove any stray infectious agents. The facility is designed to accommodate failures. If one filter fails, there's a second one, and all work stops until both are working again.
Within this space our work is divided into rooms where we grow virus in cells in plastic dishes. There are separate spaces where we house animals that we use to evaluate how the virus is transmitted and if our vaccines are working.
When we're done for the day, the materials we used are treated with bleach or stored safely. All waste is sealed in plastic bags and treated in a pressurized, high-heat oven called an autoclave to ensure any remaining virus is dead.
To leave the lab, as we move through various anterooms toward the exit, at every stage we remove a layer of gloves and protective equipment. We also regularly spray our suits and respirators with powerful disinfectants. At the last step, we remove our respirator and scrubs and "shower out" of the facility. Even the wastewater from the shower is boiled for an hour under high pressure to kill any microorganisms.
The only living thing that leaves the facility is the scientist.
An exterior view of the Eva J. Pell BSL-3 containment laboratory at Penn State. Penn State, CC BY-ND
Training and Oversight
Many of the safety precautions around working in a high containment facility happen long before a researcher steps foot on the site. To gain access to this laboratory, I underwent an extensive FBI and police background check.
I was subject to a medical exam, and my lung capacity was tested. I was vaccinated against influenza. I'm sure when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, I'll get that shot as well.
A rigorous training and testing process made sure I know how to handle agents like SARS-CoV-2 safely, as well as things like what to do during a fire, a bomb threat and even a tornado. Regardless of my over 10 years experience working with viruses, everyone entering the facility is trained from scratch.
Every high containment lab in the U.S. is subject to regular inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or both. Once open, a facility is reinspected and certified every three years. During the interim, inspectors arrive unannounced to review all aspects of the facility, including maintenance records, inventories of agents and operating procedures. My university also provides oversight.
In addition, there is a myriad of other security features. One of my colleagues once joked that during a zombie apocalypse, the containment lab would be the best place to hide.
Ultimately, all these precautions are in place to help us understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted in animals and determine the optimal vaccine formulation that will prevent transmission. The facility at Penn State, like others throughout the U.S., was built for this type of research so scientists could quickly and safely respond during a pandemic. With a bit of luck, the work done by dedicated researchers in these facilities will help bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end, sooner than later.
Troy Sutton is an Assistant Professor of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, Pennsylvania State University.
Disclosure statement: Troy Sutton receives funding from Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research (CEIRS), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and The Huck Institutes of Life Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Winter is supposed to be the best season for wind power – the winds are stronger, and since air density increases as the temperature drops, more force is pushing on the blades. But winter also comes with a problem: freezing weather.
Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
Ice buildup changes air flow around the turbine blade, which can slow it down. The top photos show ice forming after 10 minutes at different temperatures in the Wind Research Tunnel. The lower measurements show airflow separation as ice accumulates. Icing Research Tunnel of Iowa State University, CC BY-ND
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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