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The repurposed shipping containers were lifted by crane over trees and onto a concrete platform on the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS before it was transferred into the biosafety level 3 laboratory. Picture: SUPPLIED
The repurposed shipping containers were lifted by crane over trees and onto a concrete platform on the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS before it was transferred into the biosafety level 3 laboratory. Picture: SUPPLIED

The University of the Free State’s (UFS) new biosafety level (BSL) 3 laboratory will allow the university’s world-respected researchers to further advance their research on, and surveillance of, infectious pathogens, with the ultimate benefit being the improved quality of health for the communities of the Free State and beyond.

The BSL 3 laboratory will further enhance the university’s reputation for high-level international research, especially in the field of human pathogens, which will help prevent disease and lead to better health outcomes.

The UFS’ vice-rector of research Prof Corli Witthuhn emphasised how important it is to have a facility of this nature (the only one of its kind in central SA) on the main campus, particularly in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

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Intensify research of the impact on human pathogens

“The pathogen research laboratory promises to intensify our research of the impact on human pathogens, as it allows our SA Research Chairs (SARChl) and other outstanding researchers to broaden the range of microbial pathogens that are being studied, and gain a better understanding of the global disease burden,” said Witthuhn.

The university’s dean of the faculty of health sciences Prof Gert van Zyl said the international level of quality research carried out in this facility will contribute to improvement in the disease profile of central SA.

“In supporting partners such as the Free State department of health, this important scientific footprint in disease prevention and treatment will benefit the community at large by improving the quality of health research and delivering the best possible outcomes.”

The BSL 3 facility is supported by a small suite of laboratories for molecular and serological research and is accessible to any UFS researcher or student requiring a high level of pathogen containment.

A look inside the UFS’s new biosafety level (BSL) 3 laboratory. Picture: SUPPLIED/UFS
A look inside the UFS’s new biosafety level (BSL) 3 laboratory. Picture: SUPPLIED/UFS

Appropriate biosafety and containment measures

Research and handling of infectious viruses and bacteria require appropriate biosafety and containment measures to prevent laboratory workers, personnel and the environment being exposed to potentially biohazardous agents.

There are four distinct levels of biosafety, each with specific biosafety requirements. A BSL 3 laboratory is designed and precision-built to operate under negative pressure, and sees all exhausted air passing through a dedicated filter system to ensure that no pathogens escape into the environment. In addition, researchers wear appropriate personal protective equipment suited to the pathogens under investigation.  

The UFS BSL 3 laboratory is a modular container supplied by Air Filter Maintenance Services International (AFMS) and comprises two repurposed shipping containers. It was built and factory-tested in Joburg before being dismantled and relocated to the main campus in Bloemfontein, where the containers were lifted by crane onto a concrete platform.

The AFMS installation team then spent a number of days metamorphosing the two containers into a state-of-the-art laboratory, with a mechanical plant room and the ducting that maintains the laboratory under constant negative pressure, cleverly and discretely disguised behind cladding, allowing the structure to blend in with neighbouring buildings.

The need for training young researchers 

The pathogen research laboratory is managed by Prof Felicity Burt, an arbovirologist with more than 25 years’ experience in handling infectious viruses.

“Biosafety and biosecurity are essential in the investigation of emerging and infectious pathogens that cause significant disease and fatalities,” Burt said.

“And while Covid-19, pandemic, viruses, vaccines, masks, social distancing and lockdown were words seldom heard just six months ago, they are sadly now part of our everyday vocabulary,” explaining that the pandemic is the result of the zoonotic transmission of a virus from a wild animal to humans, with subsequent global spread.

“As this is not the first pandemic and will not be the last, the ongoing potential for the emergence of novel viruses and bacteria underscores the need for training young researchers and developing skills to tackle future outbreaks, develop new vaccines, understanding how pathogens cause disease, and discover alternate ways to mitigate outbreaks.

“We are thrilled to have a state-of-the-art laboratory that allows us to safely handle those pathogens previously excluded from our research and surveillance programme. This facility positions the UFS to provide young scientists with world-class training and build capacity, now and into the future.”

About the author: Felicity Burt is from the division of virology at UFS and the National Health Laboratory Services.

This article was paid for by The University of the Free State.

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