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During the past 30 years, UTMB has recruited an exceptionally talented cadre of experts in emerging infectious diseases. So when the federal government decided to build a network of research laboratories to learn more about emerging diseases and to develop countermeasures against the acts of potential bioterrorists, UTMB was recognized as a place where such a lab made sense. In addition, the Galveston community has long supported the groundbreaking work of scientists at UTMB, creating an environment where an important research lab, critical to our nation's biodefense and biosecurity, could operate under a high level of security and public support. The following are Frequently Asked Questions about the Galveston National Lab.

FAQs

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, at a time when America had come to grips with the potential for widespread terrorism on our soils, there was an attack made through the postal system using Anthrax, resulting in broad-based terror and several deaths. This raised awareness of the potential for naturally occurring pathogens to be used by terrorists. As a result, Congress funded a research agenda to protect America against those who might misuse anthrax and similar biological agents, and provided funding to build high containment laboratories where these dangerous pathogens could be studied and where vaccines and therapeutics to protect the United States population could be developed. The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored a competitive and lengthy procedure and awarded ;funds to more than a dozen universities throughout America to construct two National Biocontainment Laboratories (NBLs) and 12 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories. UTMB won the grant to build the Galveston National Laboratory.
The Galveston National Laboratory is a state-of-the-art biomedical research facility where scientists can work at the highest levels of containment to safely study the most dangerous pathogens and infectious diseases in the world. Studies include development of diagnostics and therapeutics for those pathogens that can potentially be weaponized by our nation's enemies. The goal is to learn about the pathogenesis of these agents and to develop medical countermeasures to protect public health. Scientists from around the world collaborate with the scientists at the GNL, and dozens of important developments have been made to combat diseases ranging from anthrax to Ebola to Zika. Importantly, the Galveston National Laboratory includes sophisticated environmental controls so that studies can be made safely without the utmost concern for protecting the environment.
High containment laboratories are engineered to be among the strongest buildings in the world.  There are very few locations that are free from threats from nature. Tropical storms and hurricanes, unlike earthquakes or tornados, can be monitored for many days (even weeks) prior to their arrival, offering time for enacting well-defined emergency plans, securing research projects, and preparing the facility. The building itself has been built to withstand the winds and storm surge of a hurricane, and in fact, Hurricane Ike (2008) struck Galveston just weeks prior to the national lab's dedication, and the GNL survived without any damage, despite massive damage that occurred throughout much of Galveston Island. 

UTMB has detailed emergency preparedness and business continuity plans in place, and the GNL reduces its research portfolio during the most active months for tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico (August and September).  During those months, researchers are busy documenting their research, doing field research around the world, or writing grants, and the operations crews take care of annual maintenance, construction projects and equipment installations. During Hurricane Harvey (2017), which occurred during the planned slow-down, operations of the building continued without incident, as Galveston was not subject to the massive flooding that occurred in Houston.
There are only two of these laboratories located on university campuses: the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB and the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory at Boston University. The rest of the labs in the United States are operated by federal agencies, including the Department of Defense (Army - Frederick, MD), the Department of Homeland Security (Fort Detrick, MD), the National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services (Fort Detrick, MD and Missoula, MT), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta) and the US Department of Agriculture (Plum Island, NY). There is a small, private BSL4 lab located in San Antonio, Texas, and the replacement for the USDA's Plum Island facility for research on diseases that impact animals is being constructed in Manhattan, KS and is expected to be completed around 2021.
No. The facility is a university-owned and -operated building and research is run as part of the University of Texas Medical Branch research program. The lab does focus on priorities that have been identified by the National Institutes of Health with the goal of both basic and translational research to improve public health. All research is subject to review by university review committees (including the Institutional Biosafety Committee and IACCUC). Most research is funded by federal agencies, with Principal Investigators serving as faculty at UTMB. Graduate students and post-docs have the unique opportunity to work on important research studies alongside the PIs.
Infectious diseases are a major threat to the public health of US citizens, both here in America and those who live or work abroad. The recent (2014/2015) outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa made it clear why it is important to study diseases that are not common in the United States. U.S. healthcare workers were infected while fighting the outbreak, and one imported case ended up infecting nurses in Dallas, Texas and causing widespread panic across the nation. Many well-known diseases — including tuberculosis (TB), malaria, cholera and yellow fever — have reemerged or spread geographically since 1973. Vector-borne diseases (those caused by mosquitos or ticks) are becoming more dangerous, as we saw with the Zika virus in South America that led to birth defects in newborns. New diseases are emerging all the time: HIV, Chikunguna, hepatitis C, Nipah virus, Marburg — for which there are no cures. Labs like the GNL make great strides in medical discoveries in these areas.
The university is not involved in any classified research and does not create biological weapons. UTMB’s research aims to protect people against the diseases caused by infectious agents and to help ensure the biosecurity of the U.S. Summaries of all grants the university receives from the federal government are available for public inspection. All research protocols for work inside the laboratories are approved by the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee.
The building and sophisticated equipment that make up the Galveston National Laboratory cost more than $174 million when it was completed in 2008. The NIH allocated $115 million to help design, construct and equip the GNL. An additional $58.6 million came from the State of Texas, as well as from revenue bonds approved by the Texas Legislature.
Both federal and university sources fund operation of the GNL. NIAID, a division of NIH focused on infectious diseases, provides annual operating funds for the BSL4 portion of the laboratory. The University funds the lower level containment operations. Operating funds take care of equipment, utilities, and some staff. No research is paid for with operating funds. Research is covered by grants and contracts from federal government agencies, as well as by collaborations with biomedical companies.
The GNL has attracted top researchers and research grants to UTMB. For every dollar spent on research at UTMB, it is projected that three dollars are returned to the local economy. When it was built, the GNL was expected to add nearly $1.4 billion to the gross state product and almost 22,500 person-years of employment over a 20 year period.
A combination of rigorous training, meticulous procedures, tight security, carefully designed structures, and elaborate and redundant operating systems keep 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 the labs are carefully trained to rigorously follow safety procedures.

Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs have been compared to “submarines inside bank vaults," and they are designed for maximum containment of all research. Double and triple redundancies in safety equipment, air handling and waste management systems help ensure safety.
As with all critical areas on the UTMB campus, the Galveston National Laboratory has primary power plus independent backup power provided by two back-up emergency generators. In the event of a power failure, the emergency generators will maintain power in the facility. Each generator is tested monthly to ensure it ready to go whenever needed.
In the unlikely event that a researcher becomes infected, he or she will be treated in the UTMB hospital by a physician with expert knowledge of the infectious diseases that are studied at the GNL. After the Ebola outbreak of 2015, UTMB Health was awarded federal funds to build a Biocontainment Critical Care Unit, which is a state of the art containment unit where patients with the most infectious diseases on the planet can be safely treated. Staff at UTMB have been trained specifically to handle any cases that may arise from accidental laboratory exposures. Since opening in 2008, there have been no laboratory incidents that have caused infection or illness in a researcher, student or anyone working in the GNL.
Worldwide, very few accidents have occurred. Accidents such as needle sticks through the protective gloves that researchers wear can occur, which is why rigorous training is so critical for anyone who works in these labs. There are no cases of laboratory infections spreading to people outside of a BSL4 lab, despite the growing number of these facilities worldwide.
There are strict security measures in place that require employees to be thoroughly vetted prior to hiring. Each day, employees pass through numerous card-entry and keypad checkpoints, as well as checkpoints that monitor unique biometric markers. Employees only have access to areas where they need to go to perform their jobs. In addition, the laboratory is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by armed police officers and security staff. Visitors are screened prior to arrival through background checks and other measures. All belongings are scanned and all individuals must pass through metal detectors upon entry to the facility. There are additional biosurety measures in place that go beyond those listed here, and UTMB works with the FBI, local, state and national law enforcement to ensure that the facility remains safe at all times.

Researchers working in the Galveston National Laboratory study what are known as NIAID Category A, B and C priority pathogens. Examples of Category A agents include anthrax and hemorrhagic fever viruses such as Lassa fever, dengue and Ebola; Category B agents include typhus fever and salmonella bacteria, and hepatitis A, Venezuelan equine encephalitis and West Nile viruses; Category C pathogens are agents such as Nipah, yellow fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses.

It’s worth re-emphasizing that all of these agents are naturally occurring, and in many cases, emerging or re-emerging threats. Several occur naturally in Texas or have spread here in the past.

In many instances, yes. The continuum of medical research generally takes the development of new therapies from the research bench to animal models to human applications. UTMB is dedicated to developing actual vaccines and treatments for these agents. Currently, the FDA requires that all therapeutics destined for human use be proven in at least two animal models. 

In addition, UTMB has expertise in vector borne diseases, particularly those spread by mosquitos and ticks. The GNL complex includes more than 4,000 square feet of insectary space where more than 30 different species of mosquitos and dozens of different tick colonies are reared and studied to determine how disease is transmitted to humans and to develop diagnostics and vaccines to prevent the spread of vector borne diseases.

All research involving animals is conducted with the highest ethical standards and with respect for the sacrifice required by this important work. The use of animals is and will continue to be monitored by oversight committees that include community representatives who ensure the university’s adherence to federal and other guidelines for such research. One of the key points here is that the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process ensures that the protocol involves the fewest animals possible and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) ensures that those animals are provided humane care.