On a perfect Monday morning in Galveston, Dr. James LeDuc sat in his office at the Galveston National Laboratory on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch.
LeDuc was listening to an update from the World Health Organization about the status of an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. Later in the day, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would say he was worried the outbreak would soon become uncontrollable.
Whether that happens or not, the national laboratory expects to have a role in studying and treating the outbreak, as it has in similar crises over the 10 years since it officially opened.
“We’ve been asked in the past to deploy people to help on various outbreaks,” LeDuc, the director of the Galveston National Laboratory, said. Researchers from the lab use their special skills to help validate diagnostic tests and lead response teams to various outbreaks.
Since the national laboratory officially opened in 2008, the Galveston facility has found itself at the center of some of the direst viral threats to people around the world, including an Ebola outbreak in 2014 and a Zika outbreak in 2016.
It’s the kind of work the lab was created to do in the first place,” LeDuc said.
“I think the vision was to create a national laboratory that had international reach,” he said. “It’s really a center of excellence for the country, and as such we’re frequently asked to help out on international issues. Especially our experts in tropical diseases. That’s the driving force.”
The Galveston National Laboratory is one of two academic labs in the country that includes a super-secure Bio-Safety Level 4 lab. Researchers in such labs wear space-suit like garments to handle some of the deadliest and most contagious viruses on Earth.
The lab was first approved in 2005, amid a push for more biodefense research after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The national laboratory is actually the second BSL-4 lab built on the Galveston campus. The medical branch built a smaller such lab in 2004, which convinced federal officials to approve the $174 million facility a year later.
There’s never been an injury at the lab or a report of someone falling ill because of failed safety protocols, according to the lab.
Still, there have been times when island residents have cast a wary eye on the facility.
The Galveston National Laboratory was officially dedicated on Nov. 11, 2008. It had been scheduled to officially open earlier, but the occasion was delayed by Hurricane Ike, which had swept over the island in early September of that year.
The hurricane was an early test of the lab’s safety protocols — but the lab made it through the storm without losing any specimens or causing any threats to the public.
The same was true in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit Galveston County. While that storm mostly spared the island, rains did flood streets around the medical branch and the national lab. The disaster in the county led to some panicked stories in national publications about threats to the lab, but officials insisted the threats never existed. The lab never lost power during that storm.
That there was no panic over the lab during the storm is a credit to the Galveston community, LeDuc said.
“I haven’t heard any complaints or many concerns, quite the contrary,” LeDuc said. “I think when something newsworthy occurs, it brings a great sense of pride.”
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 is an example of that. After three Texans were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, state officials turned to the medical branch to help plan for what to do if infections spread, and to act as a treatment center, largely because the Galveston National Laboratory already had protocols in case one of its highly infectious pathogens was accidentally released.
A year later, the medical branch was officially designated one of nine Ebola treatment centers in the United States that are supposed to be continually ready to treat and contain any outbreaks in the future.
LeDuc credited the lack of worry among locals about the lab to the facility’s community outreach efforts. Its researchers and faculty conduct regular outreach to local school groups, and participate in a monthly public lecture series at a coffeehouse on Postoffice Street in the island’s downtown.
The laboratory also has continued a group formed before it opened to keep island residents apprised of what’s going on inside the building. The lab’s nine-member Community Liaison Committee is made up of local business owners, church leaders and elected officials. The committee meets once every two months to get updates on lab activities.
Jason Hardcastle, the committee’s chairperson and a Galveston City Council member, thinks Galvestonians should be proud to have the lab in their community, he said.
“Unlike other places where similar facilities have been constructed, the community here has actually been one of the biggest assets in its support,” said Hardcastle, a former researcher at the lab who now works as a financial advisor. “It seems like a lot of the credit can be given to the staff and UTMB itself, because they’ve made such an effort to be transparent and open.”
That transparency was perhaps most apparent in 2013, when the national laboratory issued a public alert about a missing vial of Guanarito virus, a rat-borne pathogen that can infect humans. The lab believed the vial had been accidentally dropped on the floor, and then destroyed in an incinerator, as is supposed to happen in such a case, but still informed the public about the incident.
The lab’s public outreach and safety protocols are so effective that other places have reached out to Galveston for advice, LeDuc said. Members of the liaison committee have worked with a laboratory in Baltimore on setting up its own outreach group.
On a higher level, the national lab also is heavily involved in training and consulting other BSL-4 labs on safety protocols and designs, LeDuc said. There are now more than 50 such labs around the world that are either operating or under construction. The medical branch has consulted with Chinese officials on labs being built there, LeDuc said.
That’s good for research, but a disaster at one of the other labs could have far-reaching effects on the future of other facilities, he said.
“Every time one of these labs is built it’s another potential focus where people are going to be handling dangerous pathogens and putting themselves at risk and the community at risk,” LeDuc said. “We, the global community, need to make sure that as we develop these capacities, that they’re using best practices.”
The laboratory plans to hold a celebration of its 10th anniversary Nov. 16. The event will include tours of the facility and a lecture from Dr. Ian Crozier, an Ebola researcher who once contracted the disease and recovered.