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You should fear the next ‘lab leak’

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You should fear the next ‘lab leak’

is that world better With or without the high-containment BioLab? This is a question that is not easily solved. The work that takes place inside them involves a non-trivial degree of risk, which is why the NEIDL, with its vaults and barricades and bulwarks – including its operational protocols – resembles a modern-day stronghold. Yet no one, engineering, infrastructure or human, can reduce the chances of bad things coming out of a biolab to zero. On the other hand, without them, we would lack all kinds of treatments for diseases like COVID-19 and Ebola. For now, the world believes we need these features.

Next summer, CDC will break ground in a new high-containment laboratory complex at its campus in Atlanta. One ambition is to complement the aging BioLab with a five-story, state-of-the-art facility consisting of two Level 3 Suites and six Level 4 Suites. These will largely be devoted to studying viruses with more frightening fatality rates: Ebola, Nipah, Marburg, Chapare. Construction will take approximately three years, followed by a two-year commissioning process to meet safety requirements. The cost is said to be at least $350 million – a significant jump from the $280 million (adjusted for inflation) that the NEIDL facilities built. Melissa Pierce, who will oversee the new lab, told me that she and her CDC colleagues have visited North American facilities in recent years to survey current best practices and design ideas.

thoughts that are very The new requirement will not be adopted. “When you’re designing a Biosafety Level 4, the thought of using new technology gives you pause,” Pearce told me. “It’s like the first year of a new model of a car — you don’t want to buy it, because there are probably some bugs that need to be worked out.” Therefore, many of the improvements in Atlanta are likely to be incremental. Some researchers on the planning team believe that the existing Level 4 laboratories have too narrow a space, for example, that there will be more room within the new suites for workers to move around freely. A new chemical shower from the hallway will allow employees to clean equipment more efficiently.

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Talking to the people at the CDC is to be impressed by how close they are to the next pandemic they think we might be — and how important, should a little-known infectious agent explode again in the general population, alien. Prevention in the research done on the virus will be there and elsewhere in directing us to a cure or a cure. The same is expected at NEIDL, where Muhlberger has recently been working with the Llovii virus, a relative of Ebola, first identified 10 years ago in bats in Eastern Europe. A group in a Hungarian countryside draws small amounts of blood from colonies of local bats while searching for Llovieu. If the virus is present, the group sequences and sends the genetic information to it. She then compares its viral properties with those of other pathogens to better understand the potential threats. “We don’t know yet whether it causes disease in humans,” she said. “But if it does cause disease, about 200 million people live in the area where these bats roam.”

When I asked Joel Montgomery, head of the Viral Special Pathogens Branch at the CDC, whether our awareness of new pathogens is a result of better surveillance or an increased chance of more viruses jumping into humans, he thought both factors were responsible. . , Thanks to nucleic-acid-sequencing capabilities, the ability to test new viruses is far better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. “But I think we are interacting a lot more with our environment now than before, and there has been an enormous increase in the number of people on the planet,” he said, which also affects population density. “And so we’re going to see outbreaks — pandemics, epidemics — happening more frequently. It certainly will.”

In addition, our high-containment facilities may have to deal with hazards posed in laboratories as well as those from nature. Take, for example, the diseases of smallpox. CDC’s campus in Atlanta is one of two Level 4 laboratories left in the world that harbor the live variola virus, which causes smallpox and was declared globally eradicated in 1980. (The other cache is in Russia.) Victoria Olsson, a deputy director of laboratory science and safety at CDC, told me that the lab keeps samples because studies using a live virus help scientists diagnose, treat and develop vaccines. smallpox should re-emerge, or a similar poxvirus should appear. Monkey pox, which has caused recent outbreaks in Africa, where it has a mortality rate of 10 percent, is already a serious concern; Alaska pox was only identified in 2015. More alarming, perhaps, is the possibility that someone outside the world of known biolabs could create a version of the poxvirus using the tools of genetic engineering. Smallpox had an average case-mortality rate of about 30 percent; Americans have not been immunized against it since 1972. A synthetic smallpox – or even a synthetic super smallpox, which can be deadly from the original – is not an intellectual leap.

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Of course, this is a sinister notion. But a premise behind the biolab is to be ready – ready to test new vaccines and therapeutics, ready to apply insights from old pathogens to new ones. And even in the age of enormous computing power, there’s no hope from Corley at NEIDL or anyone I spoke with at CDC that scientists will be able to make computational models as efficient as the level Painstaking studies being carried out in 4 laboratories. , It seems there is reason enough to measure the risks and try to improve the safety of what is being done there: if our prevention research cannot be replaced by digital simulations, and if our pathogenic enemies are real and are increasing in number, so it may be best to keep them close when we can – to keep them inside, that is, to keep outside.


John Gertner has been writing about science and technology for the magazine since 2003. His most recent article examined how CO2 could be incorporated into products to have an impact on climate change.

#fear #lab #leak

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