The Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston was established in 2001 to address increasing threats in biosecurity and biodefense. The terrorist strike on September 11, 2001, followed by clandestine anthrax attacks and outbreaks of West Nile Virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) alerted the United States government of the necessity to increase the number of research facilities designed to focus on protecting the nation against biological threats. Under the direction of the United States Congress, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a search to build two large-scale, university-based containment laboratories with Biosafety Level-4 capabilities within the United States. Although universities had long served as important sites for infectious disease research, high containment laboratories traditionally existed within the U. S. military or the federal government. In 2003, following a competitive national bidding process, the NIH selected UTMB as the future home for Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) and Boston University as the site for the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (NEIDL).
The NIH selection of UTMB to build what became the Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) corresponded closely with an ambitious effort already in place at the medical school. A steady supporter of biomedical research over many decades, UTMB was home to the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity (1994) and the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses (1994), an expansive collection of virus strains acquired by UTMB from the Yale Arbovirus Research Unit. This collection was housed in biosafety laboratories (BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4) constructed on campus, including the Robert E. Shope BSL-4 laboratory (1997, formally dedicated in 2003), the first BSL-4 laboratory built on a university campus. Other important resources established by UTMB during this period included the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development (2001) and the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases (2003). In 2005 UTMB broke ground for the GNL, which officially opened in 2008 and became fully operational two years later in 2010.
Located on the north side of the UTMB campus, the GNL cost $173.6 million to build, including $115 million from the federal government and $58.6 million from the state of Texas. The research and operations of the GNL are funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and other institutes and centers under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U. S. Department of Defense, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, private foundations, and corporations.
The physical dimensions of the GNL are immense. Rising eight stories high and containing 300,000 square feet of floor space, the building is constructed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Inside the GNL, more than 50,000 square feet of space is allotted for Biosafety Level-2 (BSL-2) facilities where pathogens such as influenza, hepatitis, anthrax, and HIV are stored. Another 30,000 square feet of space is dedicated to Biosafety Level-3 (BSL-3) laboratories where researchers explore coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 in addition to other viruses, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, Zika, Chikungunya, and West Nile Virus. More than 14,000 square feet house high containment research space Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) where researchers don personal protective equipment (PPE), including a fully-contained pressurized suit, to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens. These include Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and other deadly viruses. The GNL also contains nearly 6,000 square feet of insectary space where researchers study pathogen-carrying mosquitoes and ticks from around the world. More than 120 UTMB faculty and principal investigators conduct research with their teams in the GNL.
The Ebola crisis in West Africa (2014–15) put the GNL at the epicenter of research initiatives concerning the disease. The death in Dallas of Thomas Eric Duncan, a recent arrival from Liberia, and the infection of two nurses who treated him, created a wave of panic throughout the United States. Led by GNL director James Le Duc, UTMB scientists occupied the front lines of both basic research and the development of diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics for Ebola. Dr. Tom Ksiazek, the director of High Containment Laboratory Operations at the GNL, spent six weeks on the ground in Sierra Leone and tracked the Ebola outbreak in that hard-hit nation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dr. Tom Geisbert, one of the world’s leading authorities on Ebola, led an endeavor by UTMB scientists to devise a rapid diagnostic test for Ebola that ensured quick isolation of patients. In tribute, Geisbert was named a member of the “Ebola Fighters,” a collective group honored as Time magazine’s 2014 “Person of the Year.” The GNL team also developed innovative treatments and vaccines, including the experimental vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV, the first effective treatment for Ebola. In 2018, two years after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the deadly virus made a deadly comeback in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In response, GNL researchers rapidly constructed more than 7,500 doses of rVSV-ZEBOV that were distributed by the World Health Organization (WHO) for widespread use in the Congo.
In late 2019 the coronavirus (COVID-19), an infectious disease caused by a newly-discovered coronavirus, spread throughout a Chinese poultry and seafood market in Wuhan, China. The disease quickly spread throughout the world and sickened hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency at the end of January 2020. At the outset of the outbreak, a group of UTMB scientists led by geneticist Pei-Yong Shi developed a reverse genetic system to manipulate the virus genome that enabled researchers to recreate the virus from scratch. The World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses (WRCEVA) became one of only two global repositories to supply COVID-19 viral DNA. In February 2020 the GNL became one of three laboratories in the country to receive the coronavirus isolate after the first virus sample was cultured at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.
Christine Comer, Celebrating 125 Years of Working Wonders, 1891–2016: The University of Texas Medical Branch (Brookfield, Missouri: Donning Company Publishers, 2018). Galveston National Laboratory, UTMB Health (https://www.utmb.edu/GNL), accessed April 2, 2020. “The Galveston National Laboratory: A World-Class Resource for Scientific Research,” UTMB Academic Enterprise (Fall 2015). Houston Chronicle, April 1, 2020. New York Times, March 31, 2020. Alex Orlando, “A Solid Foundation for Biomedical Research,” TMC News, August 26, 2014. Time, December 10, 2014. Heather Green Wooten, Looking Back, Moving Forward: A 50th Anniversary History of the Graduate School of the Biomedical Sciences (Galveston: UTMB Press, 2019).
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Heather Green Wooten,
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