A Prison for Germs

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The exterior of the Ralph Regula Plant and Animal Agrosecurity Research Facility at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio

This building is built like a prison for a very good reason.

The walls are 13-inch-thick reinforced concrete. So is the ceiling. There are no windows. The steel vault doors are welded to the hinges, the hinges are welded to the door frames, and the frames are set in the concrete walls. The door closes with a lever and a thunk.

The epoxy floor, lightly textured for traction, smoothly curves up the wall to an eight-inch bathtub line. The floor drains feed into one of three redundant autoclaves. Pipes peeking out of the ceiling can dispense chlorine dioxide gas in every room.

If this sounds like a dystopian prison, or a supervillain containment cage, you'd be touching on the truth. The Plant and Animal Agrosecurity Research Facility at OSU Wooster is designed to take a tornado and remain standing - Wooster has been hit by tornadoes before - and secure. The PAAR is the only facility in Ohio equipped as a BSL-3 and BSL-3-Ag laboratory for the handling of plants and large animals. The pathogens inside cannot be allowed to escape.

BSL-3-Ag is unique to agriculture because of the necessity to protect the environment from an economic, high risk pathogen in a situation where studies are conducted employing large agricultural animals or other similar situations in which the facility barriers now serve as primary containment.
Centers for Disease Control

So what are 15 Ohio state University students, their teacher, and their bus driver doing inside the lab? It's a class field trip. Plant Pathology 4550: Bioterrorism is one of the rumored "fun" classes where knowledgeable students from a number of different disciplines get together to discuss topics of great significance. In our case, we discuss ways of detecting and preventing bioterroism — terrorism conducted with biological weapons (viruses, bacteria and toxins).

Some tweets from discussions

Before visting the PAAR, we talked with OARDC faculty about biological threats, epidemics and scary diseases.

The Nipah virus is one of the scary diseases. Its natural reservoir is bats, and it's communicable through saliva, urine and feces. In on case, pigs picked it up from fruit that bats had nibbled on, and pig slaughterhouse workers picked up the virus from the pigs, in turn passing it on to hospital workers. In another, humans drank date palm juice contaminated with Nipah virus. How did the virus enter the juice? Date palm juice is made by slicing open trees and collecting the sap. Bats licked the sap, leaving saliva in the collected sap. In a third outbreak, humans ate vegetables from a garden that fruit bats frequented.

Finding a cure for a disease takes years of testing to find something that can prevent the disease or lessen its effects. Weaponizing a disease often only needs a delivery mechanism.

The topic of discussion at lunch was a simple question:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it that a bioterror attack will cause 10,000 human casualties?

Many of the senior researchers in the room voted in the 4-6 range. Students were more scattered, in the 2-8 range. Bioweapons are available and, depending on the pathogen, easily deployed. The real question is: Is a terrorist willing to risk getting the plague himself to make an idealogical point?

After lunch, we popped down to the BSL-2 labs, which only require you to have training, treat sharps with extreme caution, limit access to the lab, and perform experiments in safety cabinets when aerosols or splashes are a concern. Those rooms had more orange biohazard labels than I have ever seen in one place. Three on the door, two on each refrigerator in the room, more on sharps bins and on cabinets. A -70C freezer thrummed in the center of the office, next to work-stations and notebooks.

After washing our hands, we walked over to the PAAR.

We were badged through the fence gate, then through the outside door, then through the vestibule door. The facility operates on three principles:

  • biosafety - keeping laboratories and facilities safe while working with biohazards
  • biosecurity - lab and facilities practices designed to reduce spread of biohazards
  • biocontainment - physical containment of biohazards

The outer fence and door security, and the electronic locks inside, are biosafety measures. The thick walls, air-tight doors, HEPA filters and autoclaves are biocontainment measures.

Our first stop in the containment building was the BSL-3 lab. First, we crammed everyone into the changing room and shower vestibule — about 20 people in a space four feet wide and 20 feet long. The vestibule is split in three, with a changing room on either side of the shower. Through a meat-locker door on the dirty side of the changing room is a short hallway, with doors onto the two BSL-3 labs, a hatch into the oven-sized autoclave, and a dunk tank pass-through into the BSL-3-Ag area. There is no paperwork in the BSL-3 labs. Paperwork would have to be taken out of the lab and cleaned. Instead, all notes are taken on computers. Air pressure in the lab is lower in the hallway, and the hallway is lower than in the changing room. This keeps anything in the air inside the lab.

The BSL-3-Ag lab is a different matter. It's meant to handle large animals and large amounts of plants. Through the ag lab's changing room is a large hallway used for bringing material into one of the four ag labs. Each lab has an meat-locker entrance door on this hallway, which does not open once the experiment has started. Researchers enter and through the lab's changing room. There is no bedding for animals in the lab, but rubber floor mats are sealed into the floor for animal comfort. Floor drains drain into the water purification plant. Food is brought in through the showering room. When an experiment is over, materials leave through the exit door.

Biosecurity post-experiment is as serious a concern as it is during the experiment. Material and animals exit through the lab's exit door onto a separate hallway, which ends in what I shall call the processing room. There's a cow squeezer bolted to the floor for euthanizing cows, which tips open over a grate to allow the ceiling-mounted crane easy access. The crane can put livestock in the floor-to-ceiling freezer, or move livestock to a necropsy area, or put the remains in a car-sized alkaline hydrolysis vat. The vat breaks down bodies to their constituent amino acids and crumbly 'bone shadows.' According to our tour guide, the amino acid slurry is a great source of protein, and is in demand by water purification plants as a feedstock for their anaerobic bacteria. There's also a Volkswagen-sized autoclave. Like the autoclave in the smaller lab and the changing rooms, there are two doors: one on the hot side of the wall and one on the clean side of the wall. Neither door can be open at the same time.

Outside and up a set of stairs, we visited the air supply machinery. Ports in the ceiling of each room allow a hose to be hooked up to pump the room ful of chlorine dioxide, to sterilize the room. Water lines for the fire-suppression misters run there, as well as the giant HEPA filters that process exhaust air from each room. Air-pressure monitoring equipment lives in this area. SHould a tornado come through and rip off the roof and all the equipment, valves flush with the floor will keep air inside the building.

In the basement, the three redundant waste-water purification tanks sit inside a concrete moat. Even though the room is clean and should never go hot, a two-door changing room is built for access in case of a spill.

We were able to visit the PAAR interior because it isn't running, yet. The insides are still lean of hot agents and Select agents. The facility is still undergoing certification testing, but our tour guide hoped that the facility could begin BSL-2 work in five to six months, and begin BSL-3 and BSL-3-Ag work shortly thereafter. Researchers are already designing experiments to work within its four BSL-3-Ag bays.

I've omitted some things from this account.

I understand that there are people opposed to the existence of labs like this. Inflicting diseases upon animals sounds cruel. The rationalization is that killing test animals helps prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others. Test plants go through the same thing.

The PAAR is a maximum-security prison for germs. Infectious material does not come out. Knowledge does.

The experiments in the PAAR will provide knowledge that will hopefully lessen or eliminate the impact of diseases in plants and animals related to the ones experimented on. A wheat plant infected with the incredibly destructive wheat stem rust Ug99 will never leave the PAAR, but knowledge from the experiment may help develop a strain of wheat that resists it. When wheat is 30-50% of every adult human's daily meal, Ug99's total dominance of wheat is scary. Being able to field a wheat cultivar that is resistant is worth it, in my opinion.

Likewise, animal testing helps safen our food supply. Animals without disease can't pass them on to humans. The Nipah virus mentioned above wouldn't have infected the salughterhouse workers if the pigs were inoculated with a Nipah virus vaccine. You've probably heard about salmonella and E. coli problems in cattle, chickens and pigs. Drug testing and vaccine testing can help eliminate those problems.

The PAAR is a worthwhile investment by OSU, in my opinion. It's an investment in our future health.