Just off the coast of Germany, there lies a unique island that’s home to some of humankind’s tiniest but most formidable enemies: Ebola, Nipah, influenza, Yersinia pestis, rabies, and Rift Valley fever, to name but a few.
For obvious reasons, this place has become known as the “island of plagues” or “plague island.” Officially, however, it is called the Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI), found on the island of Riems on the northern tip of Germany near the city of Greifswald.
The FLI in Reims is one of 59 biosecurity level-4 (BSL-4) laboratories in the world that are permitted to carry out experiments on some of the most dangerous pathogens known to science. The FLI is especially notable because the facility is one of the few BSL-4 labs that can conduct large-scale animal studies, an especially risky business when dealing with zoonotic diseases that can potentially jump from species to species. Here, animals can be infected with the viruses and used to better understand how diseases take root, spread, and – most crucially – how they can be prevented. The only other two facilities in the world where this type of animal research is possible are in Winnipeg, Canada, and Geelong, Australia.
Security here is tight. The whole island is currently off-limits to the public and only accessible via a bridge. Some parts of the island are low risk and contain typical scientific research facilities or even homes for the researchers, but certain high-risk areas are kept under strict control. Any researchers who hope to step in and out of these high-risk facilities must change their clothes and undergo a disinfectant shower before entering or leaving.
Once inside the high-security buildings, researchers must wear a full protective HAZMAT suit supplied with filtered air through a hose. The suit is inflated like a balloon, so it’s difficult for the pathogens to enter the suit in the event of a tear. The building is totally sealed from the outside world, complete with numerous airlocks, and kept under negative pressure to ensure that air flows inwards, not out. Any air or water that does exit the building has to undergo intense filtration and sterilization.
Along with hosting some rather unique and risky animal research, this complex of labs on the island of Riems is one of the oldest virology research facilities of its kind. The institute was founded by Friedrich Loeffler in 1910 to study foot and mouth disease, an infectious viral disease that affects cattle, as well as other animals kept as livestock such as sheep, goats, and pigs.
It became one of the leading pioneers of foot and mouth research in the 20th century, but it’s since widened its portfolio to study a range of deadly diseases that affect both non-human animals and humans, including foot and mouth, African Swine Fever, Ebola, Nipah, Rift Valley fever, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, bluetongue, rabies, Q-fever, influenza, Yersinia pestis, and – of course – SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Along with these high-profile names, they also look into lesser-known infectious diseases unique to fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and bees.
Understanding zoonotic viruses may sound risky, but COVID-19 has been a stark reminder of the risks posed by infectious viruses and the need to understand how diseases jump from animals to humans. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the President of FLI, Professor Thomas C Mettenleiter, has led an expert panel designed to reduce the risk of pandemics through increasing our understanding of factors that influence the spread of pathogens from animals to humans and the early recognition of future threats to global health.
With this knowledge, perhaps the world can be a little better prepared for the inevitable next pandemic.