Researching viruses can sometimes be dangerous, so there are many safety measures put in place to protect laboratory workers and the community.
Biosecurity measures differ slightly from country to country, but most practices remain consistent. Here are some of the things that are done to protect the community and researchers from harmful microorganisms.
There are many harmful bacteria and viruses, and these are allotted into categories depending on their potential danger.
These are low risk microorganisms that are unlikely to be harmful, such as non-pathogenic E. Coli.
Group 2 consists of microorganisms that pose a risk, but nothing major. Some examples are certain bacteria like salmonella and staphylococcus, which both commonly cause food poisoning.
Risk group 2 viruses include low-risk influenza and Hepatitis C. Sometimes, coronavirus is included in this group, but only if it is in a state where it can’t replicate, such as when inactive coronavirus is used in COVID diagnosis.
These are microorganisms that can pose a major threat to people, especially if they get out. Risk group 3 organisms must be contained within a PC3 laboratory (see below). Some of these nastier viruses include highly pathogenic exotic bird flu, Australian bat lyssavirus, and live human SARS-CoV-2.
These are the nastiest of all – they could cause severe symptoms and death. Some examples are Ebola and Marbug virus, which has an 88% death rate.
What’s surprising is that risk group 4 viruses are predominantly animal viruses – but why? Surely human viruses matter more?
As it happens, zoonotic diseases – a pathogen like a virus or bacteria that jumped from animals to humans – are notoriously large contributors to human disease. Rabies, bird flu, swine flu, lyme disease, plague – the list goes on. Sometimes the disease remains as being shared only from animal to human, but when a virus mutates to then spread from human to human, well… we might have a pandemic on our hands.
Those vicious risk group 4 viruses are of massive concern to human health, because they could jump to humans and even cause another pandemic. So we need to research awful viruses like herpesvirus simae, which is passed from monkey to humans and can cause severe brain damage and/or death, because of their devastating potential.
Beyond this, animal diseases can have major economic consequences – pigs, cattle, sheep and seafood are all important food sources and vital parts of Australia’s economy, and loss of that stock can be devastating.
Plus: some of those disease affect dogs. Enough said.
But, like so many things in science, this categorising is complex. A level 2 pathogen in one country might be considered level 3 in another. For example, malaria is often placed in a higher risk group in countries where it isn’t out in the community, and a lower group where malaria is common.
Here is a database you can use to search all pathogens and their risk groups.
Physical containment facilities
Physical containment (PC) laboratories are designed to keep a sample secure and in the laboratory. There are four levels of physical containment, depending on how hazardous the samples being handled are.
Hazardous samples can include infectious diseases, harmful microorganisms, or genetically modified material (which doesn’t usually pose a major health problem for a researcher, but could threaten the outside environment if it escapes).
Each physical containment laboratory is also governed by a set of biosafety measures, such as the type and use of personal protective equipment, that are tailored to the work being carried out.
PC1 labs are standard – it’s best practise not to take things out of the lab, but there is little risk of it escaping. They might be student laboratories, or for tasks such as dissection or microscopy of material that has been fixed – preserved in a solution and therefore dead – in something such as pure ethanol.
PC2 labs deal with mildly hazardous microorganisms, or genetically modified plants and/or animals. Genetically modified seeds should stay within the laboratory, in case they grow outside and harm the native ecology, but they could potentially be handled without gloves if they pose little threat to the researcher.
Ways to keep materials inside the lab include the use of gloves and/or proper handwashing, sterilisation of surfaces, laboratory coats that stay in the lab (so materials don’t accidentally escape by hiding on a collar), sticky mats that trap things from escaping on your shoes, and access only to registered and trained individuals.
When working with infectious diseases, labs must also adhere to biosafety levels – Biosafety Containment (BC) or Biosafety Level (BSL) labs are licensed by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 2243.3:2010 Safety in laboratories, and Microbiological safety and containment (AS/NZS 2243.3).
Labs that work with genetically modified plants or animals adhere to PC2 standards set out by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).
Currently, the BC/BSL and OGTR standards are functionally the same in Australia and the terms can be used interchangeably – they very often adhere to the rules of more than one of the regulatory bodies. In other countries, though, this is not necessarily the case, and PC labs and BC/BSL labs can have some different rules and regulations.
But for our examples, let’s focus on Australia.
Research and diagnostics of organisms that might infect people are kept strictly in these labs.
The lab is restricted to those who are trained and have experience with PC2 standards and procedures. They have to wear closed shoes, lab coats, eye protection, gloves and any other gear that might need to be specifically used for handling a certain sample.
All of the experiments are carried out in a Biosafety Cabinet, which has a screen that can be moved up and down to protect the user and has air flow that pushes air from the room into the cabinet, so anything airborne goes up the disposal vents instead of back into the lab. There are different kinds of biosafety cabinets to suit different purposes, such as to contain a pathogen or a harmful chemical.
The entire facility is designed to push air from outside in, due to different pressured rooms, and all the single-use protective gears is sterilised in an autoclave or a chemical disinfectant to kill all pathogens.
Some of the things studied in a PC/BC3 lab are HIV, Ross River virus and SARS-CoV-2.
There is only one PC/BC4 Laboratory in Australia – The Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP – previously known as Australian Animal Health Laboratory), which has its own PC4 imaging lab, so technicians can even use microscopes under strict biosafety conditions.
This is the peak standard in biosecurity, where there are multiple different pressured chambers to always keep the air flowing in, biosafety cabinets, constant decontamination and, most fun of all, balloon suits (see video below).
PC4/BC 4 labs aren’t just for people to do lab work, though. They also host the animals that have been infected to prevent any crossover of disease.
ACDP studies highly pathogenic bird flu, canine ehrlichiosis, foot and mouth disease, and new or emerging diseases.
Biosecurity laws in Australia and around the world are very strict when it comes to studying disease, and it’s impossible to overlook the importance of knowing as much as possible about the most dangerous of the viruses and other pathogens that are studied in PC/BC labs.
A special thanks to Ross Balch for greatly helping with research for this article.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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