Killer Bugs

Bad news from a San Antonio lab that studies the most-lethal microbes in the world: The germs are winning.
NEW HORRORS: Dengue fever, arenaviruses, and more.
Illustration by Michael Miller

Before visiting Texas’ only maximum-containment biosafety level 4 “hot lab”—one of four places in the nation where the most-lethal and most-incorrigible microbes are cultured and studied—I had a single question for the lab’s chief keeper, Jean Patterson, the head of virology and immunology at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, where the lab is located. Sure, the lab was “down” and had been thoroughly decontaminated for a round of cleaning and repair. This was, in fact, the only reason I was being allowed anywhere near it. But how could I be certain that there wasn’t a single errant arenavirus or herpes B bug in there just waiting to crawl up a nostril and kill me? Patterson flashed a surprisingly beatific smile, considering her line of work, and replied, “Well, you can’t.”

That was either more than I wanted to know or less. Not that I really needed to worry about stray bugs. The most sophisticated microbe lab in Texas is also the most paranoid. Just to get near it, we had to pass through an endless series of doors of varying sizes and securities—bug-containment technology that made up the better part of the cost of the $12 million building. And though the lab itself is a modest 1,200 square feet, it is backed up by two other rooms of air- and water-filtration systems; huge drums of Lysol—yes, Lysol—concentrate, which is used to decontaminate everything, including the scientists before and after they enter the lab; and enough high-tech emergency bells and whistles to shame the folks at NORAD. When the nasty microbes are in residence, the atmosphere in the lab is pressure negative, meaning that the higher air pressure outside the room

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