World's largest collection of viruses: Inside the massive biodefense lab in Houston area only on 13

Jacob Rascon Image
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
Galveston lab aims to prevent the next pandemic
As we live with COVID-19, Houston-area health experts are on the lookout for the virus that could trigger the next potential pandemic.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Did you know the largest collection of viruses in the world is protected and studied inside a massive biodefense lab. And guess what, the largest high-containment lab of its kind in the country is right here in the Houston area.

The Galveston National Laboratory isn't exactly a secret, but it's not open to the public either. In fact, ABC13 was the first local media station ever invited to tour the facility.

The seven-story building is owned by the University of Texas Medical Branch and belongs to the University of Texas system. It was built by and mostly funded by the federal government.

ABC13 photojournalist Mario Segura and anchor Jacob Rascon were greeted inside the facility by armed guards and an escort. Their equipment was scanned and they were taken upstairs to meet lab director Gary Kobinger.

"I'm proud of the work that the scientists are doing here," Kobinger said. "I'm just one of the supporters, let's say. There are a lot of great scientists doing the work."

The lab gets hundreds of millions of dollars, more federal funding for research than any other high-containment lab of its kind. It recently received up to $25 million to work with Moderna to develop mRNA vaccines for four deadly viruses, including Ebola.

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That kind of research takes place at the lab in what are called Biosafety Level 4, or BSL4 labs, which is the highest containment level. Only researchers approved by the Department of Justice and who undergo intensive training, that takes about a year, can work there.

"We remove all of our street clothes, no jewelry, no watches, no anything," lead biosafety professional Corrie Ntiforo said, as she described how researchers prepare to work inside BSL4. "We put on a long sleeve shirt, a pair of gloves over that, which gets taped. Our socks also get taped to our legs, or the suit pant."

Researchers then put on the so-called "space suit," which hooks into fresh breathing air through tubes connected to the lab ceiling.

"We're also working in specialized pieces of equipment in the lab that provide containment," Ntiforo said. "We have built in redundancy so that if there is a failure, then we always have that redundancy."

After leaving the main BSL4 lab area, researchers in the space suits take a chemical and shower in only water. They then remove the suits, tape, and special scrubs to take a shower with soap. The labs are regulated by various entities including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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"The lab is unique in many ways," Kobinger said. "It is sitting on an academic campus, on the university campus, and that is quite incredible because it changes the mandate of a lab from a government mandate to a more academic mandate, which is really focused on research, and that's what we do here."

When any of the 8,000 or so strains of about 800 viruses kept in the facility are not being used, they are stored in freezers within the BSL4 labs, which are surrounded by eight feet of concrete.

Half of the Galveston facility is not labs or office space but massive, sophisticated support systems for the BSL4 labs, including ventilation, filtration, and solid and liquid waste management.

The Galveston National Laboratory is one of 14 U.S. facilities with BSL4 labs built by the National Institutes of Health in the years following the 2001 Anthrax attacks as a network of biodefense laboratories to "study viruses of pandemic potential and to develop medical countermeasures."

"We are responsible for anything that has to do with biological hazards," Ntiforo said.

The team is proud that in its 15 years, there has never been a "major laboratory incident resulting in the transmission of a disease" at the facility. This may be why most of us know little to nothing about their work.

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