FAQs about Coronavirus Research at Columbia University

What kind of Coronavirus research is happening at Columbia?

Several research groups at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have projects underway to:​

    • Develop drugs to help prevent infection in healthy people and to help those who have been infected and are ill

    • Develop faster diagnostic tests to help identify people who have been infected

    • Understand how long the virus lives on surfaces such as eating utensils, door knobs, furniture, clothing.

Are Columbia researchers using live Coronavirus?

Most of the coronavirus research being conducted at Columbia does not involve live virus, but instead uses fragments of genes from the virus that are not infectious.

In some of the research being conducted at the Medical Center, live virus is being used. This work is conducted in specialized secure facilities designed for this purpose. There is extensive oversight to ensure that the work is conducted safely.

Columbia is one of the top research centers in the world for the study of infectious diseases like those caused by coronaviruses, and we have world class facilities dedicated to this work.

Where is the work happening?

All work involving coronavirus is being conducted at the Medical Center, in specialized facilities that are designed for this type of work. For security reasons, the university does not disclose the exact locations of these facilities.

Where are the researchers getting the live virus from?

The virus samples are being provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Why do researchers need live virus to do this work?

Many important scientific questions can only be answered from experiments on a fully functioning version of the virus, e.g., How do people get infected? How long does the virus survive on surfaces, such a door handle, a seat on the subway, or a package? How can we improve our diagnostic tests? Finding these critical answers requires rigorous experiments with live virus.

How are potentially dangerous viruses contained in the lab?

Columbia University is one of the world’s premier research institutions with expert faculty and world class facilities for conducting research on infectious diseases. The research teams involved have extensive experience with other high-risk pathogens and are equipped to ensure the safe handling of SARS-CoV-2.

Work with this virus is restricted to Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) certified laboratories. BSL-3 labs are used to handle infectious agents that can become airborne.

The facilities, in combination with personal protective equipment worn by the researchers, contain the virus inside a laboratory work station called a biosafety cabinet, which is located inside a protected BSL-3 laboratory suite. Research and any handling of the virus is only permitted within the BSL-3 laboratory’s biosafety cabinet. That biosafety cabinet is supplied with its own high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA)-filtered air, and that air is filtered with multiple layers of filters that trap viruses before air is released from the cabinet.

Who makes sure the labs and researchers are using proper materials and protocols?

Columbia University’s Environmental Health and Safety office works with researchers and laboratory personnel to ensure a safe work environment and compliance with university, state, and federal regulations.

Research with pathogens must receive approval from the University’s Institutional Biosafety Committee before the research can begin. All personnel involved in research with such pathogens receive training from Environmental Health & Safety.

Columbia’s BSL-3 lab is inspected by the CDC every year.

How are researchers working with the virus protected?

The investigators work inside the biosafety cabinet and wear a respirator called a PAPR (for Powered Air Purifying Respirator). The air the researcher breathes is separate from the air inside the cabinet. It is almost impossible for the virus to get into the lungs of the researcher, because the cabinet and respirator are independent ventilation systems.

All researchers who work with these type of viruses are under a medical surveillance program. They are cleared through Columbia’s Workforce Health and Safety office, and the researchers closely monitor their own health including checking their temperature every day and reporting any symptoms in a log. The researchers are trained specifically to recognize the symptoms of each specific pathogen they work with and are trained to know when to seek medical evaluation if needed.

What kind of training do the researchers have?

The researchers are trained in special techniques in virology. The Environmental Health and Safety office works with them closely to make sure that they follow their standard virology procedures, as well as BSL-3 safety procedures, including wearing double gloves, a Tyvek coverall, safety goggles or glasses, and a PAPR.

Each researcher undergoes a skills assessment and a test with the Environmental Health and Safety office. During the assessment, the investigator does a mock run-through to see if they’re following protocol and precautions. Each investigator is trained to know what to do in case of an accident, or an accidental release, or an accident to themselves.

The entire lab is required to have a supervised emergency drill every year, which has been done successfully for the past ten years.

How are potentially dangerous viruses shipped to the lab?

Viruses are shipped directly to the lab by special couriers that are trained to ship high-risk pathogens. The package containing the virus is not opened until it’s taken to the BLS3 biosafety cabinet. We notify the NYC Department of Health when we acquire the material.

Can virus samples get out of the lab by accident?

Virus samples must be inactivated before leaving the biosafety cabinet. This is done with special chemicals that destroy the virus. The researchers test the material for inactivation before it is taken out of the BSL-3 area.

Gloves used inside the BSL-3 cabinet, and other equipment used to work with the virus, are put into medical waste bags and autoclaved (which kills live material with heat and pressure) before leaving the BSL-3 suite.

Who has access to the viruses?

Access to the BSL-3 area is restricted and there are multiple layers of security. Very few people have full access to the BSL-3 area of the lab and the infectious materials in it.

Before they are allowed to work with these microbes or viruses, the researchers must undergo a special FBI background investigation and be cleared to work in the facility. People in the lab are trained to keep an eye out for suspicious behaviors. The Environmental Health and Safety office holds trainings and drills laboratory researchers on security issues.

Who gives permission for researchers to work on these viruses?

Columbia’s BSL-3 facilities are inspected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year and are approved for conducting research on high-risk pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2.

In addition, investigators need approval from Columbia’s Institutional Biosafety Committee, which reviews all proposals for research involving high-risk pathogens. The committee includes many scientists, such as virologists and microbiologists, public health experts, and medical doctors, as well as representatives from the community and from facilities, public safety, and other departments.

I hear that some labs are working with pieces of the virus – is that dangerous?

Some researchers are working with fragmented pieces of the new coronavirus that are not infectious and pose no danger.

It’s important to know that these pieces can never be put together to create a live virus.

Researchers working with these pieces still need to use Biosafety Level 2 precautionary procedures (e.g. wear lab coats and gloves, use bleach to clean up work surfaces).