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Don’t let the virus out! Behind the scenes of biocontainment design

Examining viruses and Safe science merge in high containment laboratories. What’s behind the design of these labs to contain the spread of the viruses and keep researchers, the general population and the environment safe? 

Viruses are ever-present and rapid change in our fast-paced world poses a new conundrum to isolate them and contain the threat they pose to our health and well-being. Rapid population growth combined with faster and accessible long-distance travel is the ideal setting for rapid virus transmission. Exacerbating this runaway setting is climate change. Viruses previously endemic to specific regions are now spreading beyond these areas and reaching a greater proportion of the world’s population.  

Biosafety levels (BSL), or pathogen protection levels are globally recognised biocontainment precautions which need to be followed to isolate biological agents which pose a threat in an enclosed laboratory facility. Containment levels range from the lowest – BSL-1 through to the highest at level 4. Viruses and bacteria falling contained in BSL 3 and 4 laboratory environments are more likely to be high health risks and life-threatening. 

Biosafety underpins virus research  

Biosafety is crucial in research on health- and life-threatening viruses. To prevent potential spread, High Containment laboratories are designed to minimise the risk of the virus in laboratory studies from being released, posing a threat to researchers and the environment. Designing these specialised laboratories requires specific knowledge and experience.  

Here’s how we design a safe environment  

As specialists in the design of High Containment laboratories we ensure strict adherence to compliance standards and regulations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL). A good technical design takes these guidelines into account while also considering practical use and optimal safety for each situation.  

Deerns has designed several projects at BSL-3 and BSL-4 level and played vital role in the design of the mechanical and electrical installations.  

Through experience gained in various projects we have created innovative and pioneering customised solutions to create a safe working environment, in which users can carry out their activities safely. 

" Deerns has designed several projects at BSL-3 and BSL-4 level and played vital role in the design of the mechanical and electrical installations.
Bernard Melchers Life Sciences Advisor

The design process  

At Deerns, the design process starts with defining the user requirements, with a series of meetings organised with stakeholders from each department to accommodate the specific needs and requirement of each research group. This stakeholder engagement process informs design decision making related to activities and logistics flows.  

Our aim is always to achieve a safe and redundant system where risk dispersion is guaranteed under all conditions. Examples include:  

  • Maintaining negative pressure in case of power failure through Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) and NSA systems.  
  • Maintaining all control technology for the High Containment facility.  
  • Using RTP systems to safely transfer high-risk material between research sites.  
  • The safe disposal of waste (water) with autoclaves or VHP disinfection sluices.  
  • Applying disinfection showers for operators.  
  • Using double-walled discharge pipes for wastewater systems, equipped with leak detection and kill tank systems.  
  • Ensuring negative pressure regardless of external wind loads.  
  • Maintaining negative pressure during fire extinguishing (gas extinguishing).  
  • Maintaining negative pressure during validated automatic disinfection (VHP disinfection) of the laboratory.  

Five critical design phases 

High Containment projects often consists of the following five phases:  

  • Feasibility study (site, building, installations)  
  • Support in drawing up a Programme of Requirements  
  • Final design and tender package for the installations  
  • Instruction and supervision during the realisation phase  
  • Support and monitoring during the commissioning and validation process 

Shielding Equipment to reduce risk 

Since risk reduction is central to the biosafety, we shield research equipment from the operator and its environment as much as possible usually through safety barrier systems such as biosafety cabinets or isolators. Examples are class II workbenches which have an open work front with a protective inflow, while class 3 isolators have a physical divider between the research material and the researcher and immediate environment.  

Directional Airflow for emergencies 

In emergencies, the risk of spread is countered by applying a pressure cascade in the laboratory. Pressure differences between the corridor access lock and the laboratory create a directional airflow to the critical laboratory. The air entering and leaving the laboratory is filtered by HEPA filters.  

 Depending on the material under examination, these filters are duplicated. To ensure the safety of the technician during maintenance, the HEPA filters can be disinfected independently of the system and replaced safely with a Bag-in-Bag-out system.  

The ‘box-in-box’ system 

To prevent potential escape of contaminated air, the High Containment laboratory is implemented as a ‘box-in-box’ system. The internal structure is separated from the external façade, with an overpressure in the surrounding corridor which ensures that outside air cannot enter the laboratory and that possible contaminated air cannot leave the laboratory.  

Protection against unauthorised persons  

While technical design guarantees biological safety (biosafety) in a High Containment laboratory, biosecurity is critical to prevent the unauthorised use of the viral material.  

In this context, various security measures are integrated into the design which include:  

  • Advanced security systems to detect ‘walking along’ with an investigator  
  • Access control via passes, input codes, fingerprints or iris scans  
  • Independent digital systems to block unauthorised login attempts  
  • Encrypted digital transmission of research results to a separate system  
  • Adequate precautions for reporting and monitoring imminent calamities, possibly supported by a permanently staffed control room  

Biosafety and biosecurity are indispensable components when designing a High Containment laboratory that ensures the safety of your staff and society.

Let’s talk

Bernard Melchers

Life Sciences Advisor

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