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Korea to open first deadly virus biosafety laboratory

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Published : 2017-03-16 17:52
Updated : 2017-03-16 17:52

South Korea is close to opening its first laboratory fully equipped for experiments with the deadliest of human viruses, such as Ebola.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country’s first biosafety level 4 (BL-4) lab is ready to open in Osong, a biotech complex in North Chungcheong Province.

There are only a handful of such labs currently operating in the world, the center said.

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At least 24 billion won ($21.2 million) has been injected for the new lab project, which officials said would enhance the country’s preparedness for deadly diseases and help local firms’ research for vaccines.

In the envisioned lab, experiments on about 20 of the most deadly kinds of human viruses, including Ebola and Lassa fever, will be carried out. Scientists still do not know much about how these diseases spread and have so far failed to develop vaccines.

The risk group 4 viruses can kill up to 90 percent of those who contract them and can be passed along by close contact with bodily fluids, perhaps even by a sneeze.

Only a handful of doctorate-level scientists, who are trained at BL-4 laboratories in other countries, will have access to the lab to conduct tests, the KCDC said.

Cocooned within a submarine-like airtight facility, each room inside the laboratory is equipped with state-of-the art air and sound pressure infrastructure to prevent the spread of virus.

Currently, Korea only operates BL-3 labs that handle pathogens in risk group 3, which usually cause serious human or animal disease but do not easily spread by casual contact. The Middle East respiratory syndrome that struck Korea in 2015 belongs to this group.

In 2014, a local pharmaceutical company developed an Ebola treatment substance, but had to seek separate research in a US-based lab, due to the lack of facilities here.

The authorities, however, have yet to finalize the opening of the lab, as it requires a review of the risks that taking deadly viruses into the country could pose to public safety.

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)