MEDICA.de talks to Professor Reinhard Burger, vice president of the Robert -Koch Institute (RKI) about bioterrorism and the use of modern high-level security labs.
MEDICA.de: Mr. Burger, in the Robert- Koch Institute new lab buildings are built. Were the old not secure enough anymore?
Reinhard Burger: Of course, our laboratories are secure. The permit authority and supervisory authority checks this regularly. But up to now there is no federal institute in charge of a lab with the protection level 4. Now this will be built at the Robert- Koch Institute.
MEDICA.de: What does protection level 4 exactly mean?
Burger: High-level security labs are called labs of the protection level 4. Risk group 4 pathogens are for example the Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever Virus, Lassa or Ebola Virus. A few more S4 labs have been built in other countries, too - for various reasons. On one hand, over the past decades we have discoved a new virus which can cause clinically relevant illnesses nearly every year. SARS is one example. On the other hand, there are international considerations to upgrade pathogens to higher protection levels than they used to be.
Burger: Since the anthrax attacks in the USA in 2001 reserach into fighting pathogens used in bioterrorism becomes more and more important. In order to do research without imposing risks to the population many pathogens need to be upgraded so that they can only be researches upon in a protection level 4 lab.
MEDICA.de: Your labs display a special setup with several lock systems and a location that is separated through plenty of space from other buildings.
Burger: Yes, that's right. Our S4 lab is part of a large office and laboratory building. However, the high-level security lab is spatially and organizationally separated from surrounded buildings. It is a disconnected leakproof aerosol construction with its own air, electricity and water supply. That way it can be guaranteed that no pathogen gets out. The public's security has uppermost priority.
MEDICA.de: Are there any new innovative methods and materials that will be incorporated into your new lab?
Burger: When it comes down to methods and materials we are geared to the internationally prevailing most modern standard. The very elaborate planning has also incorporated experiences from similar building projects.
MEDICA.de: Which role does the location of a modern high-level security lab play?
Burger: Most high-level security laboratories are located within cities because scientists of a high-level security area have to work together very closely with other researchers. This has logistic reasons because the scientists depend on the support from other laboratories. In our case, the patients hospitalised in the special isolation ward of the Charité medical centre will profit from the S4 security lab in the Robert- Koch Institute close by because the analysis of tests taken from these patients can occur on site in Berlin without wasting time through delivers.
MEDICA.de: If we take a look into the future. Regarding the fact that new pathogens keep emerging causing new illnesses, do you think that we need more stringent safety directives in S4 laboratories?
Burger: The measures taken so far have proven to be effective in comparable S4 laboratories for decades. I think that the safety arragements are hence Sufficient at the moment.
The interview was conducted by Kathrin Burghof.