Kerala’s first BSL-3 modular facility gets approval from Centre; will carry out research on pandemic-causing viruses

RGCB Director Chandrabhas Narayana said the facility will reduce time required for genome sequencing and will foster drug and vaccine development.

BySreerag PS

Published Jul 19, 2023 | 8:00 AM Updated Jul 19, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram, will house the BSL-3 facility. (Supplied)

Kerala has witnessed outbreaks of several exotic viruses in the past few years — as many as 10 in 20 years,  including Monkeypox and the Nipah virus. To combat the spread of pathogens, the state has now got its first-ever Bio-Safety Level-3 (BSL-3) facility.

The Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, has given its nod for the BSL facility at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology’s (RGCB) regional campus in Aakkulam, Thiruvananthapuram.

“Kerala’s first comprehensive Bio-Safety Level-3 Laboratory at RGCB (will) carry out research activities involving live infectious organisms classified as BSL-3 agents, such as SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) and Influenza,” an official statement said.

The hi-tech lab in Kerala’s capital will carry out research on viruses that have the potential to cause epidemics or pandemics.

Related: Why Kerala is first to detect and report exotic viral strains

Benefits of a BSL-3 lab

Speaking to South First, RGCB Director Prof Chandrabhas Narayana said the facility will drastically reduce the time required for genome sequencing and will help in drug and vaccine development.

According to Narayana, there was a high demand for a BSL-3 facility during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of such a facility was a major challenge for the nation in coping with the pandemic.

“Covid-like pathogens are usually airborne and to handle them in a normal room would be very difficult, as they would be infecting people around them. So you need a facility — called a Bio-Safety Level-3 facility — that handles Group 3 pathogens, including those that cause bird flu, tuberculosis, and other airborne diseases,” Narayana explained.

Also Read: 1,156 died in India after Covid vaccine, highest in Kerala

Considering the situation in Kerala, which has seen outbreaks caused by exotic viruses like Japanese encephalitis (JEV), and acute encephalitis syndrome (AES), and West Nile encephalitis (WNE), the Department of Biotechnology requested RGCB to build a BSL-3 facility in the state.

Narayana explained that the BSL-3 facility will be beneficial in the field of drug and vaccine development. “If you want to develop a vaccine, then you need to handle these pathogens in a live condition. Also, when developing anti-retroviral drugs, then you need to test them in these kinds of environments,” Narayana said.

According to Narayana, the facility equips scientists to understand how pathogens proliferate in order to determine their impact — and allows them to study possible measures to contain an outbreak.

He said that the facility will also be open for private companies conducting research in these fields.

Also Read: Kerala reported India’s first Covid case. Then, a new first

Boost for Kerala’s health infrastructure

The RGCB director hailed Kerala’s health infrastructure and said that this latest facility will reduce the time required for the identification of viruses.

“Something great I find about Kerala is that its healthcare system is robust and now, with this facility, pathogens can be identified faster. Earlier, when such incidents occured, we sent samples to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, or other institutions. Today, these samples can be sent to RGCB directly and the time taken for detection, sequencing or understanding the various mutations can be done within the state,” said Narayana.

“In Kerala, there is this interest in microbiome. The Kerala government has started an initiative called Microbiome Centre of Excellence and it is currently housed in RGCB. When you are handling microbiomes, some of them requires BSL-3 conditions,” he added.

RGCB is also in the process of building a 9,000 sq ft animal BSL-3 facility in its Aakkulam campus.

Related: 13-year-old boy in Malappuram succumbs to H1N1 influenza virus

Regulatory approval

The RGCB director explained that the facility was ready and fully functional six months ago, but was awaiting approval from the regulatory authorities.

“It is dangerous to have a facility that is not fully approved by a regulatory authority. We initially received approval of the Kerala Pollution Control Board and ensured there was no pollution into the surroundings. Then it goes to the Department of Biotechnology and they have regulatory authority associated with them under the Regional Centre for Biotechnology. They looked through all the reports as well as the design of the facility to provide us the approval certificate,” Narayana told South First.

RGCB is hopeful that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will officially inaugurate the BSL-3 facility in the near future.

“We are hoping that the prime minister will arrive at our regional campus in Aakkulam to inaugurate new initiatives, including the BSL-3 facility, our new research building, and other programmes. These new projects have been set up at a total cost around ₹800 crore,” Narayana added.