Berlin’s ultra-secure P4 laboratory, a breeding ground for viruses

How does an Ebola virus disease outbreak start? How does the virus migrate from bats to humans? How to diagnose it? These are the kinds of questions that drive researchers at the P4 laboratory at the Robert-Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin, the German public body for biomedical research. The acronym P4 designates the category of the deadliest and most contagious viruses, for which no treatment exists: hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, Lassa or Machupo, infectious diseases with high power of dissemination and high mortality rate, such as smallpox or those due to the Nipah virus, the Hénipaviruses… The plague, on the other hand, is classified P3, like the Covid-19: if it resurfaced today, we would treat it with antibiotics.

Read the 2017 article: Smallpox, a disturbing resurrection

From P3 to P4, the risks are beyond measure. And the laboratories too. Highly secure, the P4s are equipped with high-performance ventilation systems, watertight doors, decontamination airlocks … There are around thirty of them in the world, including one in Wuhan (China), which the Covid-19 epidemic recently placed at the heart of the news.

Main entrance to the Robert-Koch Institute, Berlin, 2015.

The P4 laboratory of the Robert Koch Institut is the centerpiece of the new wing of a complex in the Wedding district, which, since the beginning of the 2000s, has been concentrating a large part of the institution’s activities. Designed by the German agency Henn, the building is presented as a simple volume, clad in a coat of red brick openwork in places and opened by a large bay window on the central garden. It houses offices, meeting rooms, laboratories P1, a P2 and, in its center, a blockhouse: a blind concrete cube, which protects laboratories P3 and P4.

Three years of testing

The project derogates from the precautionary principle, which would like this equipment to be preferably located in a low density area, but this blockhouse, we are assured, can withstand all shocks: “A plane can fall on it, it won’t crack which is not the case, of course, with the surrounding building ”, says Frank Siejak, security engineer at RKI. Inaugurated in 2015 by Angela Merkel in person, the P4 laboratory has undergone an extraordinary battery of tests over the following three years. Its activity only really started in 2018.

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Equipped with an autonomous air, water and electricity supply system in which “Everything exists in triplicate to avoid breakdowns”, this ultra-secure laboratory occupies the central floor of the blockhouse. Above, two levels are entirely devoted to the air filtration system. Inside, the pressure is negative, so air can enter, but not exit. The space is, moreover, completely dry – the humidity level is 1%, against 60% on average in the atmosphere -, which makes the stays physically trying. The working sessions are, for this reason, limited to five hours.

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