What is it like working with the most dangerous pathogens in the world?
That’s what Goats and Soda on NPR investigated this week. They interviewed Emmie de Witt, a Dutch scientist working at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. There are only 13 operational (or being constructed) BSL-4 labs in the US, so Emmie offers a pretty rare perspective on “dangerous and exotic” microbes.
Some of the pathogens discussed include MERS, Ebola, Nipah virus, and various types of flu (even the 1918 massively fatal strain!). Luckily, Emmie also talks about the safety precautions mandatory at all BSL-4 labs- such as non-circulating air ducts in corridors, positive-pressure protective safety suits (you have to talk via built-in radio to other scientists in the lab), showering protocols once you leave the lab, and even what type of underwear scientists have to wear…
Emmie also addresses what everyone wonders about in these types of labs- are you afraid that you might be infected and die? Fortunately, scientists generally feel safe as long as they are following safety protocols. Of course, unexpected events can happen in labs, but Emmie says that there’s a certain mindset that helps to stick to procedures and SOPs to help prevent any mistakes.
Despite the risks of working in a BSL-4 lab (and it’s downsides: uncomfortable blow-up suits, you can’t go to the bathroom or drink water once you get into the suit), Emmie still says she really likes her job. And I can totally understand why- investigating new effects of incredibly deadly viruses seems like one of the most interesting jobs around.