The Biosafety Level-4 Laboratory at RKI
A laboratory that provides the top level of security (BSL-4 laboratory) allows scientists to handle pathogens of the highest Risk Group 4, such as the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus and Ebola, Lassa and Nipah viruses. A laboratory of this kind is designed to diagnose and investigate these types of pathogen without endangering the staff or the population at large. Across the globe there are several dozen BSL-4 laboratories.
In the course of construction works at the Seestraße site of the Robert Koch Institute, a new laboratory and office building was erected which also houses a BSL-4 laboratory. The building was opened in 2015. Currently, the laboratory is undergoing a test phase before becoming fully operational. RKI is the only federal institute in the field of human medicine with a BSL-4 laboratory in Germany.
Highly pathogenic viruses
In the last few decades, almost every year has seen the emergence of new pathogens like the SARS coronavirus, the MERS coronavirus or new types of flu virus which can trigger serious illness in humans. According to the World Health Organisation, they could pose a worldwide threat, especially as they have included viruses of the highest Risk Group 4, such as the Lujo virus, or the Hendra and Nipah viruses.
The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014/2015 with more than 11,000 fatalities showed that highly pathogenic viruses can cause major epidemics. It is conceivable that individual cases might also be imported into Germany in the course of such outbreaks. Although science has known about Ebola virus for forty years, to this day, there are still no therapies or approved vaccines.
Research and diagnostics
In cases of imported, highly-infectious diseases like Ebola or Lassa fever, fast, comprehensive diagnostics are essential in order to make decisions on quarantine measures and treatment options. Certain aspects of such diagnostics can only be carried out in a BSL-4 laboratory. Patients in the neighbouring Charité Campus Virchow Hospital will benefit from RKI’s BSL-4 laboratory because it will be possible to examine samples immediately without transporting them over long distances. Equally, any suspicion of a bioterror attack needs to be diagnosed quickly and reliably under high-security conditions.
The BSL-4 laboratory, moreover, allows scientists to specifically investigate (novel) highly pathogenic viruses, to develop diagnostic procedures and to create the basis for therapies and vaccines. RKI cooperates closely with all the universities and research institutions in Berlin working on infectiology and thus reinforces Berlin’s role as a research location.
The BSL-4 laboratory at the Robert Koch Institute is a completely independent, airtight unit with its own air, power and water supply which is specially secured against technical faults. It is integrated in the surrounding building on the principle of a space within a space. Multi-level safety systems prevent pathogens from escaping into the environment: The air pressure in the laboratory is negative, for example, so that if a leak were to occur, the air would be unable to escape. The air flowing in and out of the high-security laboratory is filtered through a multi-level system (HEPA filter) to ensure that it is pure, and all waste products and wastewater are inactivated completely.
Only highly-qualified, carefully selected staff are allowed access to the laboratory, which is under constant surveillance. Scientists enter and leave the laboratory through a series of airlock security doors. In the BSL-4 laboratory itself they work in full-body protective suits with their own air supply – on leaving the laboratory the suits are disinfected in a special decontamination shower.
Projects and partners
The unit “Biosafety Level-4 Laboratory” at the Robert Koch Institute cooperates closely with other BSL-4 laboratories across the world and is involved in various EU projects. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014/2015, for example, RKI staff worked at the European Mobile Laboratory (EMLab) in the affected areas where they diagnosed blood samples taken from suspected Ebola patients.