In 2018, an outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kerala sparked fears and first highlighted the need for advanced testing centres around the country. Two years later, the same testing protocols have come under scrutiny as a new contagious Coronavirus (nCoV 2019) looms.
Although there are no confirmed cases yet, scores of individuals are under observation, and their blood samples and throat swab samples are being sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune.
"As of now, only NIV Pune has testing facilities. The National Institute of Virology at Alappuzha is expected to be upgraded soon to test Coronavirus. The time for the examination would depend on the workload of the lab. The samples sent are those of those who came from other countries," Dr Amar Fettle, Kerala state nodal officer communicable diseases told TNM.
Extremely contagious pathogens can only be tested under certain conditions, and at present, NIV Pune is the only facility in India that satisfies those requirements. These conditions are also called biosafety levels and NIV Pune is the only one that has been classified as Biosafety Level 4.
What are the four biosafety levels?
The Center for Diseases Control (CDC) has classified labs into four groups from Biosafety Level 1 to Biosafety Level 4 (BSL 1 to BSL 4). Certain precautions have to be followed, depending on the organisms that are typically studied in these labs.
A BSL 1 lab, for example, usually only works with pathogens which are identified as minimal risk pathogens, which aren’t harmful to those handling them. Accordingly, the safety measures would include hand washing stations, and appropriate safety gear to handle these organisms.
In contrast, a BSL 4 lab studies extremely harmful pathogens, including Ebola, Nipah and now Coronavirus. Since these can be potentially fatal, strict hygienic measures are in place. A BSL 4 lab must be located in a ‘separate building or in an isolated and restricted zone of the building,’ as per the CDC rules.
Those going into the lab are required to change clothing before entering and must shower and decontaminate all materials before leaving. The entrance and exit doors must be on different sides and have to be automated.
Following the Nipah virus outbreak, several steps were taken to enhance safety measures of existing testing facilities. There is speculation that three more labs will be upgraded in Bengaluru, Cochin, and Hyderabad to be able to test individuals more quickly.