Inside Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, the facility is equipped with iris scanners, airtight decontamination showers and space suits, all designed to ensure the utmost safety and security within the controversial building.
These devices are a sample of several precautions taken within the 193,000-square foot, seven-story facility that houses BU’s newest Biosafety Level-2 and Level-3 laboratories as well as the much debated Biosafety Level-4 lab, the first of its kind in Boston.
Associate Director Ronald Corley said the facility’s BSL-2 laboratory is set to begin operating in February once it receives approval to begin. No research has been conducted within the facility yet.
The safety and security measures within the building are guarding nothing but air while BU awaits approval to begin operating the BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, Corley said to The Daily Free Press during a private tour of the building.
“So we have a very expensive office building,” he joked.
Staff has begun training within the biolab in preparation of opening. The facility has a simulator in which they practice proper procedures for BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories before they begin simulator training for BSL-4. Those researchers must complete the training in the BSL-4 simulator before they can enter a BSL-4 lab, Corley said.
“This training simulator is the only one of it’s kind in the nation,” said John Murphy, NEIDL’s interim director.
The facility has received requests from BSL-4 researchers outside of BU to train in the simulator, Murphy said.
“The hallmark of working in level-4 is drill, drill, drill, drill, drill,” Murphy said.
“We make people do at least five entries and exits in this simulator before we take them up to a laboratory,” Corley said.
To access the laboratories themselves, researches must pass through a series of security measures.
To take the elevators to the laboratory floors, research staff must swipe a card while in the elevator car for access to the intended floor. When exiting the elevator, researchers pass an iris scanner proving they have clearance to the laboratories on that floor before they can enter.
The different labs have different safeguards based on their level. Due to the lethal pathogens that will be housed and handled in the BSL-4 lab, such as the plague and Ebola, it has the most rigorous safety precautions.
The floor housing the entire BSL-4 lab is encased in airtight 12-inch thick concrete walls, a 14-inch concrete ceiling and a 16-inch concrete floor.
The building rests on special beams that ensure stability even in the event of an earthquake.
“This is a submarine in a bank vault,” Murphy said.
Street clothes are forbidden in the areas where pathogens are used, so an anteroom is designated for changing.
“You come in here and you strip. You can wear your glasses and that’s pretty much it,” Corley said.
After removing outside apparel, researchers enter an airtight chamber where they put on scrubs and a spacesuit. Researchers are required to enter a special shower while wearing the suit before they enter the lab itself. As researchers enter and exit a room, they must pass through a door that will not open until the previous door has been shut.
The air inside the labs is circulated through two high-efficiency particulate air filters and is never allowed to escape from the research area it’s in, Corley said.
When exiting the labs, researchers enter showers where they receive a decontamination shower while still wearing their spacesuits. They remove their suits and scrubs in the next room before taking a personal shower. They enter another room where they can return to their personal clothes and exit the facility.
Beyond personal decontamination, the lab is also purified with vaporized hydrogen peroxide or formaldehyde, which is pumped directly into the facility.
“The reality is that if these labs are properly maintained you could walk into them in your street clothes,” Corley said.
Corley said he is also aware of and seeks to ease community concerns.
“I want to emphasize that none of the research that is done here can be secret,” he said.
“All biosafety is really about keeping the worker safe,” Corley said. “If you keep the worker safe, you’ve kept the community safe.”