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UTMB lab to help ID dangerous diseases
Christi Myers — March 16, 2010

HOUSTON (KTRK) — We have an exclusive look at dangerous work. When the H1N1 virus showed up in Mexico a year ago, no one knew what it was.

The movie "Outbreak" inspired Seth Linde, staff support specialist at the Galveston National Lab, to do this for real.

"Seeing them in that suit I don't know there's something glamorous about that I don't know," said Seth.

It's glamorous maybe but deadly — yes.

"Everything in here will kill you," a quote from the movie "Outbreak."

That's true in the real bio-safety level 4 lab where Seth works — the new Galveston National Lab.

"All you're thinking about is doing the work and keeping safe," he said.

Keeping safe from lethal diseases like hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, Lassa fever and emerging diseases we haven't seen yet.

The National Lab has a blue poured floor that has no seams, nowhere for bacteria or viruses to hide. There are no seams in the ceiling. No seams around the submarine windows. Pipes are sealed. Air is filtered and even the generators have backups.

Security is so tight that parts of the building were off limits. We can't disclose how our crew got into this lab. But we can tell you that we're the only TV station allowed to bring a camera into the Galveston National Lab.

"Most labs like this wouldn't have people in here filming at all," said Dr. Joan Nichols, Galveston National Lab Associate Director. "But for us it's part of the education for people to understand that first of all we are keeping ourselves safe. We are keeping the people we work with safe and we're keeping the community safe."

They do not make biological weapons here but weapons could be made of some of the diseases they study. Seth demonstrates how they fill the cumbersome protective suits with its built in boots.

"He's gonna grab his airline and connect it in to the side. This provides the breathing air he would need as well as the positive pressure in the suit should there be a tear in the suit," said Dr. Nichols.

There is no shortcut if you have to leave the lab.

"A bathroom break will probably take you 30 to 45 minutes if you are very good at putting the suit on and off," said Dr. Nichols.

To leave they have to disconnect the air hose, take an 8 minute shower in the suit, 4-minutes with disinfectant, 4-minutes with water. They check the suit for tears and take a personal shower.

Many ask why Galveston. The National Institutes of Health chose this location because its next to UTMB's other bio-safety level-4 lab, the smaller Robert Schoppe Lab which does similar research.

And hurricanes are the other worry, but Hurricane Ike hit before the lab could even open its doors. Days after the National Lab had not flooded. There was no breach and the generators worked.

What about the next hurricane? A team of scientists will stay with the lab.

"As a last resort the last thing you'd do is go in with a bottle of Clorox and destroy all the agents that are here," said Dr. Nichols.

The lab won't go "hot" until the inspections are completed and the microbes arrive, probably late summer.

"Once we start active work that's it — no one's gonna be allowed in," said Dr. Nichols.

Why do scientists do this? They must work with these lethal diseases to make the medicines and vaccines to fight them. It's something Seth is proud of.

"It's different. It's something to tell my grandchildren about that I helped in the development of a possible vaccine," he said.

(Copyright ©2010 KTRK–TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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