4 Things I Learned Working With Deadly Diseases
"Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory" is the official CDC designation given to high-security facilities that work with potentially lethal viruses and bacteria, like tuberculosis or monkeypox. We're talking about places that generally sound like they are one broken beaker away from turning into the setting of a sci-fi horror film. We wanted to know if that's something we should be worried/excited about, so we spoke to Rose, a Ph.D. student working in a Biosafety Level 3 lab, and she told us that ...
The Diseases You Think Are Scary, Aren't; The Ones You Don't Think Are Scary, Are
In order to fight deadly diseases, we first must understand them. That's where BSL3 labs come in. Their job is to learn everything they can about the hollow-point bullets Mother Nature likes to shoot at us. For example, remember the Black Death? The disease that once reduced the world population by at least 20 percent? BSL3 scientists are actually working with those very bacteria because, unpleasant surprise, the disease is still around and kicking (people to death.) Last year, 11 Americans were infected with the plague, three of whom actually died. Rose notes that "the plague is actually easily treatable with antibiotics," which is why she and her colleagues had to "go on antibiotics whenever working with live plague bacteria." Her current lab even keeps "an unofficial stash of the drug Truvada in case of accidents with HIV. "
Let's just say the candy dish they have in the break room doesn't have a lot of room for Jolly Ranchers.
This kind of lab is a curious blend of modern technology and medieval times. In addition to the plague, Rose and her colleagues have to worry about drug-resistant tuberculosis -- good ol' Doc Holliday-style consumption, only now wearing a medicine-proof Kevlar vest -- which has a mortality rate of over 31 percent.
"Some of my colleagues who work on HIV think we'll roll back the tide in the next 10 years while TB is going to continue to be a huge problem," she says. "Totally drug-resistant TB is such a scary idea they don't even want you to say its name, like it's Voldemort or something."
Well, thanks for telling us after we already said it.
Fighting Deadly Diseases Requires Some Real Mad Science
So at what point, exactly, do you get to survey your horrid creation and cackle maniacally, as is the ultimate goal of all scientists? Rose enlightens us: "We had a really neat piece of equipment called an 'in vivo imager' which was essentially an ultra-sensitive camera," Rose explains. "You could tag viruses or bacteria with genes that made glowing proteins, inject them into animals, and pop the animals in the imager to see where in their bodies the germs went. We had a glowing plague strain and a glowing monkeypox. You could watch the natural course of the disease and you would see it tear through the animals."
Rose was trying to take some poxviruses (viruses that cause giant pimples) and metaphorically hit them in the knees with her science crowbar until they became docile enough to become vaccine carriers. She wasn't sure the rehabilitated vaccine-viruses would work, though, so: "My supervisor suggested we use the in vivo imager to at least see if the poxvirus would work in chickens," she continues. "We used a 'marker' strain of the poxvirus that had a luminescent gene and then used the imager to capture tiny amounts of light from the luminescent viruses through the flesh of a live animal ... As far as I know, I'm the first person in the world to take pictures of a glow-in-the-dark chicken."
Hopefully this all works and leaks to the mass market, so we can all enjoy a nice KFC Bucket Lantern.
Disinfection Is More Important Than Everything, Even Nudity
A day at a BSL3 lab is essentially an eight-hour game of The Floor Is Lava, except everything is lava. "You try to get through the entire day without touching anything because it might be contaminated," Rose says. "And if you do accidentally touch something, you have to change gloves ASAP. After a while it becomes automatic, but it takes a while for those reflexes to get burned in. Early on, you'll catch yourself trying to scratch your nose through a full-face shield."
"Hang on -- this itch is terrible. Hand me that syringe; I'm gonna try and go in under the mask."
Though employees spend most of their day covering themselves in more latex than Motley Crue groupies, they spend an altogether unexpected amount of time naked.
"In my first job, each gender had a locker room on the 'clean' side and a locker room on the 'dirty' side, connected by a one-way airlock going in and a shower coming out," Rose explains. "You couldn't bring anything with you so you had to strip on the clean side, go through the airlock, then put on scrubs in the 'dirty' locker room. Exiting, you would dump your scrubs in a laundry basket on the dirty side and shower out so as to not let a single speck of possibly contaminated material through."
As though locker rooms weren't gross enough without the threat of hantavirus.
Nobody thinks anything of it, because there's really nothing like the thought of a plague contamination to help you disconnect nudity from sex, but there were a few accidental flashings.
"One day I didn't realize my then boss had gone in just before me and I opened the airlock door on her, accidentally seeing her naked," Rose says.
But thanks to these insane precautions, you could pretty much use garbage from a BSL3 lab as mattress stuffing. Chances are, it's cleaner than anything you have in your house. But at what cost?
"Everything has to be disinfected on its way out of a BSL3," Rose says. "This means that the animal care technicians have to sterilize huge trash bags full of mouse poop."
Movies Get Everything About Fighting Deadly Diseases Wrong
The most unbelievable part about Hollywood's depiction of the CDC isn't the impeccable cheekbones of its doctors:
"The thing that kind of jumped out at me as being inaccurate was when they're visiting a house where someone had died, and one of the guys has a panic attack inside his protective suit," Rose says. "You just don't get into this kind of job unless you have a high tolerance for boredom, discomfort, AND a strong sense of risk management."
Plus, those suits don't just slip on and off, so a strong bladder doesn't hurt either.
Hey, we get it. We still roll our eyes anytime the movies show a writer being happy or well fed.
Contagion (2011) was the most realistic overall, "but I literally LOLed in the middle of the cinema when they showed the experimental vaccine being tested in monkeys at Day 42 after the first patient was discovered," she continues. "They SPECIFICALLY said in the movie that it was a live-attenuated vaccine. These take months or years to develop, often with the use of genetic engineering."
You probably have to manhandle plagues every day to get that specific joke.
"HA! Treating advanced Marburg with Afluria Quadrivalent? What'll those wacky writers think of next?"
But the thing that movies get most wrong about fighting deadly diseases is the fight itself: According to Rose, the best way to combat, say, the dreaded Zika virus isn't a dramatic montage in a clean room, but to clear blocked drains and recycle old tires -- in other words, get rid of the mosquito breeding grounds. But that's about as sexy as, well, recycling old tires. And nobody wants to watch a movie about that. Even if you cast Rene Russo's cheekbones and an adorable disease monkey.
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For more insider perspectives, check out I Diagnose Your Diseases: 7 Horrifying Realities and 5 Awful Lessons I Learned Living With A Mystery Illness.
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