High containment: inside the £145M virus lab

December 7, 2019

Welcome to the Plowright Building. Today,
we are standing in the heart of this engineering of this facility. This is the HEPA deck, or
‘high efficiency particle arrester’ deck. It’s one of the critical control systems
that allows this building to function as a high-containment laboratory. This building’s function is of course to
do great science, and the science that we do of course is about high-risk pathogens.
We work on pathogens that are important for the UK economy but they also have implications
for international economies as well, so we do work on exotic viruses in fact. Increasingly
we are working on pathogens that have a human context about them – zoonotic agents which
can not only affect farm animals but also have the ability to pass on a disease to humans
as well. So in order to be able to work on pathogens
in this building we have to create a negative pressure regime in the laboratory spaces below.
We don’t want air blowing back out of the building which would then create a situation
where pathogens were being released from the building, so it’s highly designed to be
a very specific directional air flow. As you go from the outside to inside the building,
and the further you go inside the building, the greater the negative pressure will be.
So outside is ambient is zero if you like, but as you enter into the building it becomes
minus 50 Pascals as you enter into more high-risk spaces it would become minus 150 minus 200,
and we can then monitor that pressure also on a per-second basis in real-time by our
building management system. It constitutes about 50% of the cost of the building goes
into this plant space. The investment which has been made in this
building has been both from central government, through BIS and through of course our strategic
funder BBSRC. And the investment is of the order of over £100 million pounds has been
put into the particular facility, and it has taken a long time to actually come to fruition.
In fact, it’s been nearly a ten year process from the start of concept of design to the
finish building that we see today. This particular facility is on an international
scale the highest standard that you can attain. There are other facilities around the world
which can handle pathogens of this standard, but this is the newest facility for the United
Kingdom and that is important for us in terms of our own capability, but also making sure
that we have a facility that can handle viruses if they come along.

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