By Andrea Wild
Imagine you’re a scientist working on SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the disease COVID-19. Your lab is at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) in Geelong, Victoria. This building is like a box within a box. It keeps the world outside safe from the dangerous bacteria and viruses that you work on inside.
Entering the box inside the building
You arrive at work and get undressed inside a tiny changeroom. You leave everything behind, even your underwear. Then you pass through an airlock into a second changeroom and put on your lab clothes.
You walk down a long corridor painted with swirls of brown and yellow. Next door, your friends are working inside labs on viruses that aren’t harmful to humans. Some are working on the virus that causes white spot disease in prawns. Others are working on African swine fever, a disease of pigs.
Today you’ll be entering a level four biocontainment lab, which means you need to zip yourself inside a biocontainment suit. It has a plastic bubble that covers your head and thick gloves that you slide your hands into. You plug your suit into the air supply, the suit puffs up as it fills with air and you’re ready to start working.
A very important job
Right now your job is one of the most important jobs in the world. You’re testing a vaccine that everyone hopes will protect people from SARS-CoV-2. You’re also finding out how this virus gets inside our cells and what it does there to make more copies of itself.
There are many different things to do today, including handling live virus in little tubes, helping a friend understand the results of her experiments, recording your results on computer and cleaning up as you go.
Break out time!
After two hours working in the biocontainment suit, it is time for a break. First you have a chemical shower and a water rinse while still wearing your biocontainment suit. After seven and half minutes in the shower, you unzip your suit and hang it up to dry with the other suits.
Outside the level four biocontainment lab, you can visit the bathroom, work on computers and eat at a canteen, all still within the box inside the larger building.
Leaving the secure box
Before you leave work, it’s time for another shower. You return to the tiny changeroom, leave your work clothes behind and enter the airlock. Water sprinkles down on you for the next four minutes. The waste water from your showers and the labs is made safe by treating it in a huge sewerage facility inside the building. Around 25 000 litres of waste water are treated each day.
You’re free to go! But for the next seven days you’re not allowed to go near any sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, horses, asses, mules, chickens, turkeys, geese, domestic ducks, caged birds, emus, ostriches and frogs or other amphibians. Just in case!