You never quite stop flinching when you’re inside the airlock and the scientist cuts off your protective equipment.
But by the third time, you get pretty good at being an unconscious medical victim in the high-containment suite of the influenza lab, figuring out the most comfortable pose to adopt and learning how to stay limp as you are dragged toward the submarine-like sealed doors of the airlock. The first responders would be waiting on the other side — if this were a real emergency.
Fortunately, it’s just a drill.
Every year, the high containment labs of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Influenza Research Institute (IRI) are shut down and decontaminated to permit routine maintenance and inspection and update employee training. The lab also offers tours for select individuals, including elected officials, law enforcement agents, community leaders and journalists.
As a volunteer for the training part of things, I pretended to be a coworker found unconscious in the lab, thus helping the scientists who work there prepare for a real emergency. It was just one part of the extensive training that researchers go through in order to work inside the facility. And I got a close look — mostly from the floor — of the measures taken to study influenza safely.
The IRI opened in 2009 to study how flu viruses infect us and cause pandemics, and to improve and develop vaccines. Seasonal influenza infects hundreds of millions of people around the world and is responsible for up to 500,000 deaths each year. Novel strains of flu can evolve to cause pandemics, such as the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” and the Spanish flu of 1918.
Recent work coming out of the IRI, led by UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine Professor of pathobiological sciences Yoshihiro Kawaoka, has led to a method for growing viruses for vaccines more quickly and easily, with the potential to respond faster to mutations that arise, and to improve the match between seasonal influenza vaccines and the circulating flu strain in any given year.
To help keep researchers, the environment and the public safe, some influenza studies are conducted in high-containment areas at the IRI. The highest-level containment lab at the facility is a Biosafety Level 3-Agriculture suite. As you enter the airlock shower, where researchers scrub down when leaving the lab, you feel your ears pop like on an airplane. The air pressure is tightly controlled to push air into the lab, preventing any airflow reversals during entry and exit. The air is then double filtered upon leaving the facility.
Pausing during entry, the scientists – already clad in scrubs and clogs – don disposable protective suits, booties inside and outside their clogs, and hoods supplied with positive-pressure, filtered air. This ensures the researchers are covered head-to-toe and breathing clean air, thereby preventing exposure to what they are working with. Every material that goes inside is steam sterilized on its way out (paper records have to be faxed out, unable to survive the sterilization process). Even the waste water is collected in a giant tank beneath the lab, where it is sterilized before leaving the building.
In all, three floors of mechanical and safety equipment, plus another level on the roof, are required to run the BSL3-Ag lab, which is the size of an moderately-sized house.
Although I was the only one who got to participate directly in training exercises, the following week I got to join others taking part in the facility tours at IRI. Kawaoka shared the science and the public health behind his work, while biosafety and biosecurity staff talked about the measures in place to keep the work safe, the facility secure and to provide critical oversight of the research at IRI.
These tours are intended to keep lines of communication open with members of the public, who fund and benefit from the research. We believe transparency is a critical part of the success of this work because while there is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to the study of pathogenic agents like influenza, we are confident in our ability as a university to conduct the work safely, securely and responsibly.
As the scientists slid the vinyl cot under my deliberately limp body (to drag me to the airlock) and called for help, I was thinking about how research like that conducted at IRI helps develop more effective flu vaccines. Vaccines that help me visit my young niece safely, and protect less healthy individuals in the community from contracting a serious illness. As they cut away my protective equipment, I could appreciate all the preparation and seriousness that went into their work.
Flinching or not, I was glad I could provide some small measure of help during training to keep the researchers sharp.