WSU begins over one million dollar upgrade of Biosafety Laboratory

Paul Allen School for Global Health’s BSL-3 lab will begin to purchase items for upgrade sometime this summer

JOSIAH PIKE, Evergreen news co-editor

The Paul Allen School for Global Health’s Biosafety Lab will be undergoing a large-scale upgrade to update and acquire new equipment this summer.

Guy Palmer, senior director of Global Health, said this lab is the only Biosafety Level Three lab in the state east of Lake Washington. The kind of work done in a BSL-3 lab includes dealing with infectious agents that have a higher risk of transaction for individuals working with them.

The total cost of the upgrades will be $1.36 million and the funding will come from WSU, he said. This will allow them to not only refresh the 10-year-old equipment but will also provide some new capacities. 

“The important thing is, one of WSU’s goals for public health is to work with our county public health jurisdiction more efficiently in the future, even just in terms of the normal increases in infectious diseases,” Palmer said. “The BSL-3 is part of that response.”

Palmer said the BSL-3 lab is about 10 years old and some of their instrumentation has aged and there is now better equipment to use as well, which are the main reasons for the upgrade. The lab is important to the community because it has helped in some larger health-related projects at WSU.

“For example of how we used our BSL-3, when we did all the COVID tests, all of those tests would have been done with the BSL-3,” Palmer said. “You have to have your biosafety lab ready to go at any given time. You can’t have an emergency event and then say, ‘Oh, we need some equipment here.’”

Palmer said to help this project come to life, WSU has been working with many stakeholders in the BSL-3 lab, including Pullman Regional Hospital, the Washington State Department of Health and Senator Patty Murray’s office.

“This will help us to better understand how vaccines and post-infection immunity works better,” Palmer said. “That’s not only for viruses like COVID-19, but also Ebola virus, for example.”

Tom Kawula, director of the Paul Allen School for Global Health, said a lot of the current equipment is around 15 years old, which is pretty far in its lifespan.

“They’re used for diagnostics. Some it’s even some basic things such as incubators,” Kawula said. “We have freezer banks down there, and they need to be reliable.”

Kawula said much of what the upgrades are going to be focused on are the internal structure of lab capabilities. The upgrades are being done now partially because there has been a lot of pressure put on the facilities in recent years, especially during the pandemic.

“There are annual or biannual calls from the legislature about ‘what is needed for the resolution?’ The university makes a decision about what their priorities are and it was decided that this was prioritized,” Kawula said. “We went to our congressional representatives and put this information to them and described the need and they supported it.”

The full funding will be available in this fiscal year, Palmer said. WSU has three years to do the upgrade, but most of it should be done this year, and by September 2024, about 90% of the upgrades should be done and functioning.

“We just kind of upgrade when we have funding available,” he said. “Working through Senator [Patty} Murray’s office, we were able to do it all at once.”

Kawula said the purchasing of the items for the upgrade will begin in July and that they will be finished within the three-year period allotted. He and Palmer will be working closely with those in the BSL-3 lab to see what they need most.

“The process now that it’s been approved is we go back in with a spreadsheet of what we’re looking out for,” he said. “We have three years to purchase these items, which is great because it’s not to say, ‘you got $50,000, you better spend it right now.’ Over a period of three years, we can really systematically do this upgrade, to say what is going to go first, what should go first.”

The upgrades will not require a shutdown of the BSL-3 lab, Kawula said, since the more complicated upgrade installations can be done during the week-long period each year when the lab is inaccessible.

“Most of the things we’re talking about won’t require a shutdown though,” Kawula said. “Some of the things are just adding stuff. We have some new freezers coming in, for example.”