For the past 12 years, scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio have been studying some of the most infectious diseases on the planet. Every day, scientists work with these deadly viruses in an effort to find vaccines to prevent their spread.
Working inside a lab with deadly viruses like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever is risky business, that's why the scientists are required to wear "space suits".
"BSL-4 pathogens are those pathogens for which there is no vaccine, no therapy, are potentially lethal and can be transmitted in the lab to lab workers," said Jean Patterson, Chair, VNI at Texas Biomedical Research Institute. "That's why everyone is protected by their own space suit."
The lab itself is like a submarine inside a bank vault. After putting on their protective suits the scientists must pass through a series of airlock doors to access the lab. It is designed to make sure nothing inside can escape. Multiple redundancies are built in and lab workers are under constant video monitoring.
"We know what everybody is doing at all times," Patterson said. "There's no nooks and crannies where somebody could be doing something no one knows about."
Patterson said due to the stressful nature of the job lab workers can request not to work in the lab if they are not feeling up to par on any given day. The institute also follows the "gold standard" of electronic inventory.
"We know exactly how much of everything we have," Patterson said. "We know who's touched it, we know who's opened the doors, we know who touched that door and so we can follow everything that happens."
The BSL-4 facility in San Antonio is just one of six in the U.S. but six more are currently under construction or are in the planning stages. While it is the only privately run facility in the country, it is still closely watched by the federal government.
"There are probably more people that check this lab than check anything else," Patterson said. "We are inspected yearly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with select agents as well as the level 4. We're checked every 2 years for a full briefing on our entire select agent program which includes the biosafety level 3 labs."
While nothing has ever escaped from a BSL-4 facility in the U.S. accidents do happen. That's why the institute works closely with the San Antonio Fire Department keeping them up to date about what they have on hand and conducting yearly training.
"We train them on how we would remove someone," Patterson said. "If someone were to have an accident in the level 4 or a seizure or a heart attack and had to be removed immediately we have a procedure in place to decontaminate them and then turn them over to EMS."
Deborah Foster, Public Information Officer for SAFD said the department has containment plans should something escape and they conduct table top exercises with other agencies to test those plans, but she admits stopping an airborne virus would be difficult.
"It's going to be very difficult for us to do that but what we have to do is make sure we are ensuring the safety of the most lives that we can," Foster said. "We have to be able to protect not only our firefighters who may be responding to the facility but also the surrounding communities."
Despite the risks, scientists will continue working with these deadly diseases in hopes of finding a cure.
"Our major goal is to protect the safety of our employees and certainly the safety of the public but we believe the work we are doing will ultimately protect the people of the world," Patterson said. "We feel very comfortable that we know what we're doing."