Throughout human history, we have only known about 1,400 pathogens that can infect humans. That is, taking into account all the viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and helminths that modern medicine has tested for combined.
But in a world with trillions of species of microorganisms, this 1,400 represents only 1/1000 of 1% of all the potential pathogens that could infect us in the future.
That is why many countries have to build biological laboratories, to continue to detect new pathogens capable of infecting humans. The work done by these labs is also to prepare in advance for future bad scenarios if that really happens.
But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from a biological lab has raised a concern: How are these studies being performed? And are they safe enough?
Jerry Malayer, a professor at Oklahoma State University who is directly studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus, will tell you the answer.
What is the biology lab used for?
At Oklahoma State University, Professor Malayer’s team is one of 10 pathogen research groups used in biosecurity laboratories. They are identifying genetic variants of viruses and bacteria, studying how they function in a variety of host cells.
Some are trying to understand how the host’s immune system responds to these invaders. And also how that process is affected by underlying diseases such as obesity, diabetes or by the patient’s advanced age. Some other research will focus on detecting and eliminating pathogens.
All of this research is aimed at understanding how pathogens can potentially harm us. And this is important to both veterinary medicine, as well as the health of mammals, birds, fish, plants, insects and other species around the globe.
Think of the research achievements that scientists have made over the past century. We have been able to prevent and treat many diseases based on our understanding of the micro-organisms that cause them, where they come from, their place in the environment, and their location in the environment. how it overcomes human immunity.
Understanding what these organisms do, how they do, and how they spread helps researchers develop measures to detect, reduce, and control their spread. The goal is to be able to cure or prevent the disease they cause. The more dangerous the pathogen, the more urgently scientists need to understand it.
This is where we come in for biological lab studies.
Inside a biology lab, scientists are answering very basic questions about how a pathogen works. What mechanism does it use to enter host cells and replicate? What genes does it activate, to make what proteins? This information can be used to identify strategies to eliminate pathogens or lead to treatments or vaccines.
As we deal with more and more pathogens, the biological laboratories have more and more opportunities to apply this knowledge. With COVID-19, for example, scientists have known they use an RNA genetic machine to make spike proteins, which infect lung cells via the ACE2 receptor. This knowledge was then used to create the COVID-19 vaccines we have today.
In the modern world, new pathogens can arise as ecosystems change or as they move to different parts of the world. Sometimes a pathogen adapts to a new vector – meaning it can be carried by another organism – allowing it to spread to new areas and infect new populations.
About 70% of the world’s emerging infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans; they are called diseases”zoonotic“. The work that scientists do in biological laboratories is to figure out how these new transmission pathways work, to be able to predict what might happen in the future, whether just as modest a guess as possible.
Biological laboratories serve the very survival of humanity, where we are required to study and understand each pathogen, or microorganisms that are at risk of becoming pathogens as soon as they are discovered.
4 levels of biosafety laboratory
When it comes to studying microorganisms that can become pathogens, there is no such thing as zero risk. But over the years, researchers have developed safe procedures for working with dangerous pathogens.
In the biology lab, every study must be planned in advance and logged in progress. Scientists need to rewrite what they intend to do or are doing. How do they do that? Where and who participate?
These descriptions will be reviewed by multiple independent committees for safety. In the US, there will be independent monitoring by trained professionals within the organization and, in some cases, by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Agriculture, or both. , to ensure researchers are following approved protocols and regulations.
People who work with dangerous pathogens must adhere to two sets of principles:
The first set of principles is about biosecurity, which helps prevent pathogens from leaking. It includes all engineering controls to keep scientists and their surroundings safe.
Examples include: enclosed workspaces, guaranteed ventilation in biosafety cabinets, laboratory air flow is directed and passed through a HEPA air filter capable of cleaning and preventing every pathogen moving in and out of the lab.
Scientists must always adhere to rigorous laboratory procedures and everyone wears personal protective equipment including gowns, masks and gloves. Sometimes they even use special respirators.
Also, to make it even more secure, scientists often disable the pathogen they study – essentially cutting it into pieces so that it can no longer function – allowing scientists to learn to work with on piece by piece.
BSL-4 Laboratory Dressing Procedure
The second set of principles is about biosecurity, that is, measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, release or malicious use of pathogens. These principles include access controls, sample stock control, and certified methods for decontamination and waste disposal.
The world research community now recognizes four levels of biosafety practice. Biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) and level 2 (BSL-2) are applicable to shared laboratory spaces where there is low or no risk.
BSL-1 is commonly used for teaching or researching nonpathogenic biological agents in healthy adults. BSL-2 can be used to study pathogens that are moderately dangerous, treatable, and generally not respiratory pathogens.
BSL-3 refers to laboratories where individual risk is high but community risk is low. This means that the pathogen studied in it can cause serious illness in humans, is easily transmitted through the respiratory tract but has a cure or treatment methods.
The new BSL-4, BSL-4 biology laboratories are the places to study the most dangerous pathogens in humans, animals or both for which there is currently no effective treatment. BSL-4 laboratories are relatively rare, with an estimated 50 of them in the world.
A top safety rule is that BSL-4 laboratories must be built in areas that are separate from residential areas and have extremely limited traffic. It’s built with at least two layers of protection, like “a completely sealed box inside another box”.
Typically the BSL-4 would be housed in an isolated building, which could share a common space with neighboring BSL-3 laboratories. But it must be completely separate from those common spaces.
If we closed all biology labs, what would happen?
In recent years, the world has witnessed severe disease outbreaks caused by certain microorganisms. Even for the pathogens that scientists already know, there’s still a lot we don’t know about them. And there are still many threats out there that humans simply haven’t discovered yet.
Biological laboratories are important sites for learning about new pathogens. The first thing is to identify them, understand how they move from one host to another, how they are affected by the various conditions around them, what variations will develop over time, and what can we do with them. What control measures can be implemented effectively?
In addition to well-known viruses such as rabies, West Nile virus and Ebola, there are a number of dangerous pathogens that are also circulating in the world but are less known. Hantavirus, dengue, Zika virus, and Nipah virus are all being studied in biosecurity laboratories, where scientists are working to understand more about how they’re transmitted, develop rapid diagnoses, and manufactures vaccines and treatments.
If we close all biological laboratories, the world will be put in a passive position, humanity will go back hundreds of years of development to face dangerous pathogens empty-handed. Therefore, research work in these laboratories is needed to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic itself and prepare for further pandemics that may occur in the future.