All systems within the Galveston National Lab (GNL) are built with engineered and human redundancies in place to assure safe operations at all levels. The GNL is owned, operated, and located on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB). The University has long considered the safety of its employees, students and researchers - and the community as a whole - paramount.
The GNL will use double High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and contain redundant systems within the utility, power and mechanical infrastructure. Biosafety labs that include biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facilities are one of the most safely designed and constructed types of buildings in the world. It is for this reason that over a combined 80 years of operation, there has never been an environmental release from a BSL-4 facility in North America.
In fact, UTMB has experience operating a maximum containment laboratory. The University has long operated level 2 and 3 labs. In 2004, UTMB began operating the Robert E. Shope, M.D. Laboratory, the only full-sized BSL4 lab on a university campus in the United States. It has been operating smoothly and safely for more than three years.
State-of-the-art systems built into the design of the GNL help protect workers and prevent any release of infectious agents. Use of cutting-edge technologies coupled with state-of-the-art security and audit systems and highly trained employees form the building blocks for the GNL.
Proper oversight, monitoring and transparency are central to the lab's operations and mission. The Institutional Biosafety Committee, the Community Liaison Committee (CLC), and the Community Advisory Board (CAB) are a few of the Committees that ensure safety and transparency of GNL operations.
What experience does UTMB have operating a maximum containment laboratory?
UTMB has long operated levels 2 and 3 labs. In 2004, UTMB began operating the Robert E. Shope, M.D., Laboratory, the only full-sized BSL4 lab on a university campus in the United States. It has been operating smoothly and safely for more than three years.
How does UTMB ensure that researchers, employees and members of the local community are safe from microbes studied under high containment?
A combination of rigorous training, meticulous procedures, tight security, carefully designed structures, and elaborate and redundant operating systems keeps everyone working in the high-containment labs safe. These measures also ensure the safety of those outside these labs. As the people most at risk in the event of an accident, the highly trained researchers working in such labs are carefully trained to rigorously follow safety procedures.
Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs have been compared to “submarines inside bank vaults.” Heat, pressure, and chemical systems housed in the vault area process, or “cook,” all liquid and solid wastes completely, and high-efficiency filtration removes any airborne material, making all the liquid and air effluents sterile or safe before they leave the facility. Double and triple redundancies in equipment and systems help ensure that if an unexpected failure does occur, a backup is in place to maintain safety.
The laboratory studies tiny amounts of infectious agents and the diseases they cause in order to develop ways to mitigate their threat. As with all UTMB research involving infectious agents, work inside the BSL4 and BSL3 high containment labs is overseen by the Institutional Biosafety Committee. No experiment with such organisms can take place on campus without careful examination of all protocols to assess all risks.
What are the dangers if a hurricane strikes the area?
The GNL is among the strongest and most heavily reinforced of all structures in the region. It is designed to meet hurricane building codes. Despite its structural integrity, plans are in place to shut down and secure all laboratory operations if a hurricane landfall is predicted near Galveston. This shut-down and decontamination can be done quickly, with all work in the facility ceasing, the lab locked down, and all infectious agents and biological and chemical material placed into safe and secure storage.
What happens with the power fails?
As with all critical areas on the UTMB campus (which also is home to hospital facilities), the Galveston National Laboratory will have primary power plus independent backup power provided by multiple generators that are tested regularly.
What about security?
As is now the case with UTMB’s existing BSL4 lab, strict security measures are planned for the GNL and include several card-entry and keypad checkpoints as well as checkpoints using unique biometric markers. All of this is required before scientists can approach and enter through the heavy metal doors sealing the facility. Under federal laws, security at and around the GNL facility will be regulated, and will include security checks of personnel, traffic checkpoints and a 200-foot vehicle-free safety zone. Campus and community law enforcement officers and other first responders receive special training on security and safety issues involving the laboratory. The state-of-the-art security systems will be reviewed and updated regularly. Rigorous procedures and practices will be consistent with federal guidelines. UTMB also has the benefit of the safety and security expertise of some of the world’s best-known and most knowledgeable BSL4 experts, recruited to the university during the development of the Robert E. Shope, M.D. Laboratory.
What happens if a researcher gets infected?
In the unlikely event that a researcher becomes infected, he or she will be treated at a UTMB hospital with appropriate safeguards to ensure that neither staff nor visitors are exposed to the infection. UTMB is well-equipped and staff is well-prepared to care for individuals with serious and highly contagious infections.
Have accidents in BSL4 labs ever occurred?
Worldwide, very few accidents have occurred. Accidents such as needle sticks through the protective gloves that researchers wear have occurred, and on some occasions these events have led to tragic outcomes for the infected scientists. The scientists working within the BSL4 labs are those most at risk. None of these episodes to date, however, has resulted in the spread of an infectious disease to anyone outside the facility.