The freezers, the air-locked doors, the alarms—they must all operate perfectly, because perfection is the minimum requirement at the $12.5-million Influenza Research Institute. The facility sits on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, home of the Badgers, whose basketball team went to the Final Four this year. But the building seems a thousand miles from all that.
Assuming they pass the FBI background check necessary even for the administrative assistants who work there, employees entering the lab are required to remove all their street clothes, including undergarments. Once they put on dedicated scrubs, with shoe covers both inside and outside a pair of dedicated garden clogs, they access an anteroom outside the lab. To go into the laboratory, they need a different pair of clogs and shoe covers specific to that space, and must pull on a Tyvek jumpsuit, a hooded respirator outfitted with an air filter, and two pairs of disposable Tyvek gloves. Upon leaving, they take all that off in a specific order, then take a 5-minute shower with soap and water during which they are required to wash all orifices and blow their noses.
The suite that houses the virus is a BSL-3-Ag facility—essentially the most secure building of its kind in existence, give or take one or two features. (The building also houses research on the Ebola virus.) Not one particle of anything is allowed to escape.
The institute was built in 2008 largely to advance the efforts of one man, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of virology who several months ago published a study detailing his successful bid to build the virus—a strain of influenza that’s almost identical to the Spanish flu—from contemporary flu genes. For the study he infected ferrets with the virus and mutated the strain to make it more easily transmissible through respiratory droplets—in other words, from sneezing mammal to sneezing mammal.