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Working with the COVID-19 virus

With reports that the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain on surfaces for days, how do our researchers working with the virus ensure that they and our facilities remain safe?

Following the announcement that Ultan Power, Professor of Molecular Virology at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, has been awarded a grant of £295,626 in a bid to find a treatment for COVID-19, plans are underway to transport the SARS-CoV2 virus to Queen’s laboratories.

The research project will see Professor Power and his team of researchers infect models of human lungs with the virus that causes COVID-19. Then – working in collaboration with Ken Mills, Professor of Experimental Haematology at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research – they will test combinations of existing drugs for effectiveness against the virus and the inflammatory responses that it induces.

While we have all seen the outbreak movies featuring hazmat suits and sealed metal boxes, what does the reality of virus research look like?

Transporting the virus

The virus will be coming to Queen’s from Public Health England and it will be transported using a triple layer of protection. “A vial containing the virus will be inside a tube, which will be sealed. That’s inside another tube which is wrapped up in paper so if anything does spill, it will be absorbed by the paper. That will be in a further tube.

It’s not quite like in the movies, but there will be extreme levels of safety employed to make sure that it is unbreakable, and that if anything did spill, it will be within this unbreakable container and the paper will provide loads of absorption so that the virus would be soaked up before it actually gets to us,” explains Professor Power. That paper would then be appropriately bagged, sealed and disposed of according to biosafety guidelines.

The biosafety lab

Before the virus is brought to our laboratories, our facilities must be signed off by the Health Service Executive to make sure we comply with all the health and safety requirements needed in the facility to be able to work with this virus.

Laboratories are rated according to their biosafety level (BSL) - a set of biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents safely within an enclosed laboratory facility. The levels of containment range from the lowest biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) to the highest at level 4 (BSL-4).

“The conditions under which we will be working will be biosafety class 3, which is the safety level that is required for working with viruses like SARS CoV-2” says Professor Power. Precautions you must adhere to in a biosafety class 3 lab include: working within a biological safety cabinet while all researchers must wear solid-front protective clothing at all times. In addition, the lab must be behind two sets of self-closing doors; carpets are not allowed and any seams in the floors, walls, and ceilings are sealed to allow for easy cleaning and decontamination.

“These precautions mean that the people who will be working in these labs – all of whom are well-trained scientists with previous experience of working with respiratory viruses - will be totally protected. The risk of contamination or infection of any of the people working in the lab will be essentially zero.

In fact, I would suggest that the people working in my lab will be safer than the general public because we know exactly where the virus is. Walking around the streets where people may be infected with viruses, we don’t know where it is. In the laboratory, we know exactly where it is and how to effectively control any risk of its transmission.”

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