'The safest place to be': A coronavirus researcher on life inside a biosafety level 3 lab

6 min read
Sara Cherry, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, feels safer at work than almost anywhere else. That's because she works inside a biosafety l...
For those involved in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, these are frightening times. Health care providers, sometimes working in improvised protective equipment, risk exposure to the coronavirus from patients and worry about carrying it home to their families. Even Americans whose jobs don't bring them into contact with COVID-19 patients are frightened of contracting the coronavirus at work, if they still have work to go to.

But evel 3 laboratory on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, where she is the scientific director of the High-Throughput Screening Core. Level 3 is used for research on potentially lethal microbes, and ones that can be easily transmitted through the air, including tuberculosis and plague. There is only one higher level, which is required for a few extremely dangerous viruses, including Ebola and smallpox.

Cherry's workplace, with no more than three other people inside at a time, is a sanitized, negative-pressurized space in which ambient air is being continuously expelled from the room. She works in full biohazard gear, including a sealed hood, breathing high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) from a battery-powered blower she carries on her waist.

It takes two months to train someone to work in the lab. "Once you get the hang of it, it's really not that dangerous," Cherry says modestly. "In fact, it's probably about the safest place to be." She finds that a hood, which conveys a gentle stream of cool air to her face, is more comfortable than a respirator mask.

Sara Cherry, left, and Holly Ramage in the BSL-3 lab at the University of Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Sara Cherry)

She is, of course, working on the coronavirus. In March, the university shut down almost all ongoing research, including the work Cherry had been doing on emerging mosquito-borne viruses, including Zika and West Nile. If you're accustomed to handling those in a BSL-3 lab, the coronavirus, although not to be taken lightly, holds no special terror.

Yahoo News, Jerry Adler
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