The secure and fully contained section of ACDP can only be entered through airlocks doors.
When you enter the building you head to a two-way changeroom separated by an airlock. In the first changeroom you leave everything behind, even your underwear. You pass through an airlock and enter the second changeroom, where you dress in lab clothes supplied by CSIRO. On the way out, you’ll shower as you pass back through that airlock.
It’s time to suit up and enter the lab. When working on some bacteria or viruses that can cause diseases in humans, we wear a fully encapsulated suit. It connects to a separate air supply filtered through HEPA filters.
We work on everything from Ebola to Sars-CoV-2.
Our scientists working within the secure laboratory.
Responding to disease outbreaks
In 1994 we discovered Hendra virus, a newly emerged Nipah virus, was the cause of an outbreak of disease in horses and humans in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra in Queensland. Another outbreak of Hendra virus infection occurred in October 1995 when Hendra virus was detected in a farmer from Mackay, Queensland, some 600 miles north of Hendra. Bats and wading birds were thought to be the most likely candidates as animal hosts of this new virus. In 2000, Hendra virus was isolated from two species of bats.
In May 2011 CSIRO announced the development of a prototype vaccine for horses. By March 2013 our scientists confirmed that horses were immune to a lethal exposure of Hendra virus six months post vaccination, and in August, 2015, the vaccine was fully registered. Vaccinating horses is the best method to prevent the spread of this disease from bats to horses and then onto humans.
Meanwhile, in 2002-03, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged. In 2005 collaborative research involving CSIRO scientists found that bats were highly likely to be the natural host of the virus responsible for SARS. In 2013, horseshoe bats were confirmed as hosts of the virus responsible for the 2002-03 pandemic.
A bat cell infected with Hendra virus taken with a confocal microscope at ACDP.
Level 4 biocontainment laboratory
The secure and fully contained section of ACDP has five levels. A 30cm thick concrete wall forms an airtight box around the secure area.
You’re inside ACDP, working in a level 4 biocontainment lab. What happens to the air you breathe out? What happens to the water you use in the lab? What about your own waste, when you flush the toilet or shower out through the airlock?
Protecting our staff inside the building and the world outside the building from exotic and infectious diseases requires a lot of engineering. Let’s visit the impressive nuts and bolts sections of the building.
They remove particles 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
ACDP has 1000 HEPA filters distributed across 10 000 square metres – about the size of a soccer field. The filters remove any viruses or bacteria from the air before it is vented from the building.
The building itself is a box within a box, with the air inside at slight negative air pressure. This means any air leakage would result in air flowing into, not out of, the building.
Treating the waste water
Around 25 000 litres of waste water each day are treated in a huge sewerage facility within the secure area inside the building.
The sewerage comes from two main streams, high hazard waste from the labs and low hazard waste from the kitchen, laundry, showers and toilets and is collected through 24 separate mains from different areas within the secure zone. This means we can isolate and identify different streams if ever an alarm goes off. The floor is kept very clean so that we can see any leaks and quickly fix them.
After travelling through the collection pipes, high hazard sewerage is stored in large vats and heat treated to 125 degrees celsius for thirty minutes for decontamination.
Leaving the secure section of ACDP requires you to shower - multiple times.
It’s home time! But leaving work is not as simple as in most jobs.
The biocontainment suit you’ve been wearing will need to be decontaminated. First you have a four minute micro-chemical shower, followed by three and a half minutes of a clean water rinse, all while in the full-suit, before removing it and hanging it up to dry.
Then return to the next shower airlock and undress, leaving your CSIRO lab clothes on the inside to be washed. Go through the steel airlock door to the shower area. It is mandatory to have a full three minute shower including shampooing hair and beard. Once finished, you exit out through the airlock door on the other side to where you entered, arriving back at the cubicle where you first undressed. Here you are reunited with your own clothes!
Once you exit from the building, it is essential that you avoid all contact with sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, horses, asses, mules, any other cloven-hoofed animal, fowls, turkeys, geese, domestic ducks, caged birds, emus or ostriches, amphibians or the actual places where these animals are held, or visit any aquatic animal farm or aquatic animal hatchery for a period of seven days. For most people, there are no restrictions applying to cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rats and mice. There may be restrictions regarding keeping rabbits as pets.
The suits are hung up to dry after decontamination.
Our other research
Not all of our research needs us to work within the highest level of biocontainment.
Some of the viruses we work on, like white spot disease in prawns and African swine fever in pigs, are harmless to humans but very damaging to industry.
In 2016 an outbreak of white spot disease was detected in prawn farms in Queensland. When an emergency animal disease is detected, Australia's state and national agencies work together to test samples, contain the disease and manage a coordinated response. In the months after the start of the outbreak, ACDP conducted over 58,400 tests for white spot disease on 22,500 samples.
In April 2020, white spot disease was again detected in South East Queensland and our staff in the Diagnostic and Emergency Response Laboratory at ACDP undertook testing that confirmed it was present in the samples provided.
In the case of African swine fever (ASF), we are working with government and industry to stop ASF entering Australia and, in the event it does emerge, work quickly to contain and eradicate it.
Find out more about our research, global partnerships and role as a vital part of Australia's biosecurity system at Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.