Virology, the study of viruses, is a field with ever-increasing importance. According to the World Health Organization, of the 30 new types of pathogens discovered in recent decades, 16 are viruses.
Viruses are responsible for a great number of highly dangerous diseases, including avian influenza, HIV, hepatitis A, B, and C, SARS, shingles, and COVID-19, just to name a small handful. Virology labs are on the front lines of defense against these deadly diseases.
What Happens in A Virology Lab?
Virology labs are centers for the study of viruses and the development of diagnostic tests and ways to fight the viruses these labs study. Virology labs develop diagnostic reagents and supply them to medical centers.
These labs typically maintain virus repositories, where samples are stored and preserved for further study. Virology labs will also bank serum from infected patients who have developed viral antibodies.
As part of their research on viruses, virologists’ study and determine epidemiology, diagnosis, and pathogenesis of various viruses. They also develop vaccines and study viral reactions to different types of antibodies.
Some virology labs also focus on modifying viruses for healthcare. Some types of viruses don’t infect humans but do infect bacteria. Virologists can modify these viruses to develop treatment for bacterial diseases.
A clinical virology laboratory is often found as part of a hospital. These virology labs specialize in diagnostics. They may use such techniques as serology, antigen testing for rotaviruses, and PCR, which amplifies small segments of DNA for molecular and genetic analysis.
More and more people are familiar with this method because of the COVID-19 pandemic, since PCR is a fast and highly reliable method of identifying the COVID-19 virus.
Why Study Viruses?
Viruses require specialized study to understand them as pathogens. The spread of viruses can have massive impacts on humans, animals, plants, and even bacteria.
Viruses do not always have a major effect on their hosts– for example, the common cold, which is irritating but usually ultimately harmless, is caused by a type of virus called a rhinovirus. But other viral diseases, such as AIDS, ebola, and hemorrhagic fever, are fatal.
By studying the viruses that cause these diseases, virologists can better understand how to prevent infections. Virologists can also help identify how viruses spread, why some viruses are more likely to infect people than others, and how viruses evolve.
How Are Virology Labs Set Up?
No matter what type of virology a lab does, there is a great deal of overlap in how these labs are set up.
Some equipment and protocols are the same no matter what type of virology work is being conducted, and there often is not much physical difference between a clinical virology laboratory and a research virology laboratory. Where these labs differ is in what they do.
The most important thing to remember about virology laboratories is that the work they do is conducted on pathogens. Most of the viruses studied in these labs have the potential to infect people.
This work is extremely important, and in order to understand how it is done and how these labs function, you first must understand how virology labs deal with biosafety.
Enhanced Safety Protocols
One of the many important aspects of a virology lab’s construction is the biosafety measures that these labs must adhere to. A virology lab’s biosafety level informs all personnel and equipment decisions, so it is very important to understand how these safety levels work if you are planning to build a virology laboratory.
In the United States, biosafety is classed into four levels, BL1-BL4. All virology labs are classified as BL2 or higher. The BL number is determined by two factors: how dangerous the virus is, and how likely it is to infect people via aerosol.
For example, HIV is deadly, but it has a low risk of aerosol transmission, so it can be studied in BL2 labs. Other BL2 viruses include the hepatitis viruses.
The next level of biosecurity, BL3, requires that all work be done under biosafety cabinets because the materials in these labs have a higher rate of aerosol transmission. BL3 labs may study SARS viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
BL4 labs are the most restricted type of lab and work with highly transmissible, extremely dangerous viruses like those that cause hemorrhagic fever, ebola, avian flu, equine encephalitis, and other diseases that could cause serious, dangerous outbreaks and are transmissible through aerosols.
These laboratories have high-level security protocols and have highly limited access policies.
Biosafety Level Comparison
|Biosafety Level||Laboratory Type||Biosafety Practices||Specialized Safety Equipment|
|BL1||Basic teaching and research; in the US, no virology labs are at this level||Good microbiological techniques (GMT)||None; open bench work|
|BL2||Diagnostic services, primary health services, research||GMT, protective clothing, biohazard signs, sometimes pressurized entryway||Biological safety cabinet for viruses with aerosol spread|
|BL3||Special diagnostic services, research||Level 2 plus specialized protective clothing, controlled access, directional airflow||Biological safety cabinets for all activities|
|BL4||Research only||Level 3 plus airlock entry, shower exit, special waste disposal||Class III biological safety cabinets or positive pressure suits for Class II biological safety cabinets, double-ended through-the-wall autoclave, filtered air|
Virology Lab Equipment
Because biosafety is such an important concern in virology labs, much of the research is done in biosafety cabinets. There are several classes of biosafety cabinets, and all of them function on the basic principle of isolating the researcher from the virus (or other pathogen) that they are studying.
Virology labs also need places to grow and store viruses. Despite their potential for transmission, the physical structure of viruses is fragile and can easily be destroyed through exposure to common chemicals like ethanol.
This is where refrigeration comes into play. When a virus is not being used, it is stored in facilities at -112°F, or in liquid nitrogen, which at -320°F is so cold that the virus is put in a dormant state.
All virology labs will have multiple autoclaves, which are important pieces of equipment for this type of lab. Autoclaves use heat to destroy pathogens and are highly effective at destroying viral material.
BL4 labs will use double-ended autoclaves, which create a sterile path for materials to be passed in and out of the lab.
Are You Designing A Virology Lab?
Virology labs can be challenging to construct. You need a space that is secure enough to keep samples safe and accessible enough for workers to feel comfortable.
You also need to have equipment that meets your lab’s biosafety needs!
At OnePointe Solutions, we’ve worked with laboratories across the United States to create lab spaces in the BL2, BL3, and BL3+ range of biosafety protocols.
We can design and manufacture laboratory cabinets, custom workbenches, and tables, and also provide lab-grade countertops, sinks, biosafety cabinets, and other necessary lab furniture to make sure your virology lab is equipped to perform its duties.