The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has requested funds for a new high containment lab; let's give it to them.
High containment labs are a necessary evil for public health agencies like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Understanding how deadly diseases work can lead to better control and prevention measures, like vaccine developments and rapid identification. However, working with dangerous agents like Ebola or Marburg requires a biosafety level 4 (BSL4) laboratory, which has very specific biosafety requirements, and the ones at the CDC are in sore need of updating.
Pathogens in BSL4 labs are, according to the CDC, “dangerous and exotic, posing a high risk of aerosol-transmitted infections. Infections caused by these microbes are frequently fatal and without treatment or vaccines.” High containment labs (BSL4) are often in separate buildings or in a very isolated part of a building as they require a dedicated air supply and exhaust air on top of the ability to decontaminate. Negative air filtration systems, airlocks, and positive-pressure protective suits (often called “space suits”) are also critical components for scientists working in these “hot” labs.
As novel diseases are found and microbial threats grow in this highly connected world, the importance of these labs and the work that is done in them also increases. Not only are these laboratories critical, but the safety and security of the buildings are critical as well. Maintaining biosafety (keeping people safe from germs) and biosecurity (keeping the germs safe from nefarious actors) is a challenge and the complexities of both mean that the costs to ensure they are carried out substantial.
After 13 years, the CDC has requested that their high-security laboratory building be updated. The current building cost $214 million to build in 2005 and will need to be replaced by 2023. As such, the CDC has asked Congress for over $400 million to build this new facility. As one can imagine, these buildings are not easy to build or operate, which is why there are only 13 BSL4 facilities within the United States. Proper construction and maintenance are critical to keep the high-risk diseases that are studied within them safe.
In light of past CDC biosafety failures, however, it’s not surprising that many individuals worry about the work done in these labs. These worries even extended to Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL, another BSL4), which struggled to obtain approval from the Boston Public Health Commission and was delayed for years due to community concerns.
Those concerns should fuel the support of a newer, safer lab. Funding for public health research has a tendency to be constrained and often infused during emergent situations, but in the case of these laboratories, they are a critical component to strengthening global health security. Developing rapid diagnostic tests, understanding pathogen characteristics, and vaccine efforts require work in these BSL4 facilities. For example, as we look back 100 years to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, it becomes apparent that the advances that have been made in science and public health have kept us safe; however, such efforts do not come without cost and continued investments. With the future of the Global Health Security Agenda and the CDC’s global health security efforts in flux, only time will tell if the CDC will get the funds for its new high containment lab. Funded or not, however, there is no question that it is needed.