Via Nature News & Comment: Ebola spurs creation of Japan's first maximum-security biolab. Excerpt:
Japan is set to join an elite and dangerous club with its decision to upgrade an existing infectious-disease lab to handle the most hazardous pathogens. The move sweeps away more than three decades of political opposition to operating a top-biosafety-level facility 30 kilometres west of Tokyo in the city of Musashi-Murayama.
An agreement reached on 3 August between Japan's health ministry and the mayor of Musashi-Murayama clears the way for the facility to begin limited work with BSL-4 pathogens such as the Lassa and Ebola viruses. Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) built the biosafety-level-4 (BSL-4) lab in 1981, but it has been limited to operating as a BSL-3 lab because of safety concerns. Fears that Ebola might reach Japan during last year's outbreak in West Africa partly motivated the policy change.
The deal sets several conditions for the lab's activities: the NIID has committed to maintain transparency in reporting lab operations and any accident, and the lab must also restrict its BSL-4 work to diagnosing and treating patients instead of a broader research programme.
However, virologist Ayato Takada at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, hopes that the agreement will ease the way for other facilities where scientists can perform basic infectious disease research at the BSL-4 level. Discussions are under way to build a bigger and more modern BSL-4 lab at Nagasaki University — a move that has similarly met with community opposition.
For the time being, Takada's studies of Ebola virus must be conducted in collaboration with international partners; he flies to the United States several times a year to perform BSL-4 experiments. "It's time-consuming and expensive," says Takada. "I really hope the decision at Murayama will have a good influence on the likelihood of the Nagasaki University BSL-4 plan."
Upgrading day-to-day operations from BSL-3 to full BSL-4 status may take several months, says virologist Masato Tashiro, former director of the NIID's Influenza Virus Research Center.
The original BSL-4 infrastructure at Musashi-Murayama has been maintained over the decades, but new protocols will need to be established and staff trained for the higher-security-level work. The lab will also need to import samples from other countries to build a reference library for diagnosing suspected infections.
Typical BSL-3 labs include two sets of self-locking doors and directional airflow to prevent the escape of potentially lethal, airborne pathogens. But BSL-4 labs have extra features that protect the workers and prevent the escape of highly lethal microbes that cause infections for which there are no treatments or vaccines.