GALVESTON — Since its dedication nearly 20 months ago about 3000 people have toured the Galveston National Laboratory where researchers will work to develop vaccines drugs and diagnostic methods to combat infectious diseases — both those occurring naturally and types spread by terrorists.

Inside the 186267-square-foot $174 million laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch officials led school groups island residents dignitaries and the curious on carefully guided tours.

Visitors got an idea about what would go on when researchers donned ”space suits” to study such deadly pathogens as Anthrax bubonic plague typhus West Nile and hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.

Visitors also got to see where researchers working with the most dangerous pathogens would take eight-minute decontamination showers which involves being doused in high-powered disinfectant to kill dangerous microbes. The tours took in floors where liquid waste in 1500-gallon tanks will be heated to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes to kill organisms.

Through the tours the medical branch which owns and operates the laboratory funded by state and federal money has sought to assure residents the facility is safe and secure.

Now those tours have ended as the medical branch prepares the facility to go ”hot.”

In the next few weeks researchers will move in and begin their work in the laboratory. It took 2400 workers five years to design engineer and build.

There’s nothing fast about opening such facilities.

When nearly 1000 people including University of Texas System officials dignitaries and select island residents gathered Nov. 11 2008 to celebrate construction of the facility there still was much work to be done before research could begin Joan Nichols associate director for research and operations at the laboratory said.

Despite Hurricane Ike which struck just months before the dedication the laboratory’s opening is on schedule Nichols said. The facility which did not sustain damage during the 2008 storm is engineered to withstand high hurricane-force winds and is anchored by a foundation of about 800 pylons set 120 feet deep.

The labs where scientists work on the most dangerous pathogens are 30 feet above sea level.

Officials have spent time since the dedication testing complex systems and implementing intensive training to all who will work in the laboratory to ensure they understand the equipment and safety controls in the high-tech facilities where security also is a concern Nichols said.

Researchers and support staff must undergo both classroom and practical instruction before an intensive in-lab training period which can take months Nichols said.

Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with other agencies and organizations have inspected the facility in past months.

The laboratory includes about 14000 square feet of Biosafety Level 4 space where researchers can safely study pathogens requiring the highest possible level of containment.

Biosafety Level 4 is required to study exotic agents — such as the Ebola virus — that can be lethal are airborne and for which no approved treatments exist.

The Galveston National Lab also contains abut 29000 square feet of Biosafety Level 3 space required for agents that could cause serious or potentially lethal diseases.

Federal guidelines determine biocontainment classifications for pathogens.

Medical branch officials already understand training for Biosafety Level 4. In 2004 the medical branch opened the Robert E. Shope M.D. Laboratory also a Biosafety Level 4 facility.

The medical branch also is home to the National Biocontainment Training Center where infectious disease scientists learn to work safely in high-containment research laboratories worldwide.

The Galveston National Laboratory will employ a work force of about 300 scientists and staff. But not all will work in the building at once or right away Nichols said.

Also it’s not certain just what type of research scientists will conduct when the laboratory opens in the next few weeks. The federal government foundations and commercial sponsors such as pharmaceutical companies hoping to test vaccines against pathogens will influence research at the facility.

In May last year some researchers at the Galveston National Laboratory got a chance to fulfill their mission by studying swab samples from the mouths and noses of Mexican patients suspected of being infected with the so-called swine flu. Medical branch researchers joined their peers around the world in studying the virus that caused death and alarm.

To prepare the lab to fully open Nichols has been working with Tom Ksiazek director of the laboratory’s high containment facility operations along with Miguel Grimaldo director of institutional biocontainment resources at the medical branch.

The Galveston National Lab is one of two approved by the National Institutes of Health after the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks. Stiff resistance from opponents who feared deadly pathogens would escape into the community has delayed opening the second lab at Boston University Medical Center.

”We’re really excited” Nichols said. ”We’ve been working hard since before Ike to get the facility put together and we’re really looking forward to the day we have people working in the building and doing what we’re supposed to do.”

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