GALVESTON — U.S. Senator John Cornyn on Thursday stood feet away from viruses that can wreak havoc on the human populations.
He was hardly in any danger, however.
Standing in a nondescript hallway at UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory, Cornyn was separated from viruses, such as Ebola, by several counter measures.
Superdense concrete covered with an impermeable epoxy.
Negative pressure ventilation that keeps air carrying pathogens from circulating through the building.
Biohazard suits and chemical showers that ensure researchers who work with the germs don’t carry their work home with them.
National biosafety labs came under scrutiny in July when a Government Accounting Office report noted lapses in safety procedures at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta and at a Food and Drug Administration laboratory in Maryland. Medical branch officials stressed Thursday that these deadly diseases were safe at UTMB’s lab.
“If I heard one theme I heard repeated over and over and over again, it was ‘safety,’” Cornyn said, after taking a guided tour of the laboratory. “Not just for the researchers that are doing the work here to, but to protect the community.”
To coincide with Cornyn’s visit Thursday, UTMB granted members of the media a tour of the Level-4 biosafety lab where researchers work with some of the world’s most infectious diseases. Programs operating out of the National Laboratory work to develop therapies, vaccines and tests to diagnose naturally occurring diseases, as well as ones that might be used as weapons.
Research at the lab includes work with influenza, anthrax, West Nile, chikunguya and Ebola.
Before starting the tour, the hospital laid out the precautions taken to ensure security during the media visit — including covering lab room numbers and the names of researchers.
UTMB has stressed the lab’s safety measures in the past, particularly around the time it opened in 2008. But the recent outbreak of Ebola in Africa, which has killed more than 1,500 people this year, has brought renewed attention to the facility and the work being done in Galveston.
Cornyn said it was a coincidence that his visit to the laboratory coincided with the growing outbreak of Ebola in Africa.
“We didn’t realize how timely it would be in light of what’s happening in the news,” Cornyn said. “If there is an outbreak anywhere in the world, it can spread anywhere else in the world. That demonstrates the critical importance of this Galveston national lab.”
At a news conference following his tour, Cornyn said he supported appropriating more funding to the Galveston National Laboratory through tools such as a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
In August, the laboratory received more than $6 million from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense to help develop treatments to fight Ebola.
Hospital officials said more money is something they could use, particularly for its National Biocontainment Training Center program. The center aims to provide infectious disease and biodefense researchers with specialized training in the types of futuristic containment facilities at UTMB
“The training center is really the foundation of the work we do here,” said Jim LeDuc, the director of the National Laboratory. “It’s essential to have that funded well.”