Risky research: making labs safe

Labs fall into four categories depending on how dangerous the disease being studied is.
19 October 2021

Interview with 

Amanda Phelps, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory


BSL4 lab


To understand more about the risks of this type of research, it’s important to understand all of the safety procedures that are in place not only to prevent any disease from escaping a lab and infecting the wider population, but also to protect the health of the people doing the research in the labs. Clearly some research is more risky than others, and to find out how these risks are managed, Sally Le Page spoke with virologist Amanda Phelps from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory - DSTL - at Porton Down ...

Amanda - So there are four categories of labs ranging from one all the way up to containment level four. Containment level one would be the sort of lab you might have in your school or college, handling agents that pose no threat or harm to people, all the way up to containment level four, where we handle the most deadly of pathogens on our planet

Sally - Levels three and four, I suppose, are the more serious ones. Certainly I've never been in a level three or a level four lab. What sort of bugs are in level three versus level four?

Amanda - At containment level four they are all viruses. These are agents that are likely to cause you severe harm or probably kill you. That's why they're classified at the highest level. Two good examples would be ebola virus and Marburg virus. Viruses that we handle at containment level four don't have any treatments generally, whereas for three, the likelihood of death from contracting something like plague or anthrax isn't as high, and we have a number of treatments available.

Sally - If there's a chance it can kill you, it's in three or four. And if you can treat it, it's probably in three. If you can't treat it, it's probably in four.

Amanda - That's a really good summary. Yes.

Sally - What's it like to, say, work in a category three lab when you're working with viruses like avian flu and the current coronavirus?

Amanda - Okay. So it's nothing like you would probably see in any of the movies is a good place to start! Only the people who are qualified and experienced at working with these particular agents are allowed to go into these particular labs. We can control the air flows, and for us that means negative pressure, so the air is always rushing in and it doesn't rush out. We wear our normal clothes, go on in, put your lab coat on, put a pair of gloves on, and then you can begin work.

Sally - And so how do you make sure that you don't accidentally infect yourself?

Amanda - The glove boxes that we work in - essentially a large box with two large gloves attached to it at the front, and we sit at those. We have air flows, again at negative pressure, so air is always rushing in, and we only ever handle the bugs in these glove boxes. So the bugs and us, we're never actually in the same place at the same time. There's always, always a physical barrier. And most of the time, it's not just one barrier, it's two or three.

Sally - So you're one of the rare breed of researchers that actually works in a category four lab. So what's that like to work in? How is it different from category three?

Amanda - We need to completely change out of our everyday clothes and change into what we call scrubs. We have to put on a special pair of shoes, or a dedicated pair of shoes, to go into the lab. And once in the lab itself, we have lots of connected glove boxes all linked together so that all of the work that we need to do is entirely contained within the corridor, or link, of gloves boxes. Once we've finished our work for the day we then need to remove the scrubs and the dedicated shoes and have a shower, a full shower with hair wash, and then come out and we can get back into our everyday street clothes.

Sally - And of course, the majority of the time, if any accidents were to occur, it would be just that - an accident. But what's to stop someone who's seen a few too many science fiction movies from stealing one of these nasty viruses or bacteria from one of the labs?

Amanda - We have very strict audit-able records of the materials that we hold. So anytime we access, let's say anthrax as an example, if we were to access some stocks for some work, then we would need to make a record of what we have accessed, when, how much, and what we used it for. So there are very, very strict controls. The people element is always an interesting factor, but again, I come back to the training where we bring people in at the lower levels, we train, we work alongside them, and it's only when we recognise that they have the right skillset and the right sort of up aptitude for working in the high containment levels, only then will they progress.


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