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Germany?s only lab which deals with tropical viruses

At their workplace, death is permanently looking over their shoulders. And the scientists working with life-threatening viruses at the Bernard Nocht Institute get hundreds of samples from around the globe.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2006 12:12 IST
DPA
DPA
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At their workplace, death is permanently looking over their shoulders. And the scientists working with life-threatening viruses at the Bernard Nocht Institute get hundreds of samples from around the globe.

The laboratory is the only place of its kind in Germany capable of dealing with tropical viruses. Some 30 strains of deadly infectious diseases from Lassa fever and Ebola to SARS and yellow fever are contained behind steel doors and bullet-proof glass. Professor Herbert Schmitz is head virologist and has conducted research for 25 years.

It was the 65-year-old scientist’s idea in 1980 to have Europe’s first high-security lab built, against massive resistance, it must be said. In Hamburg’s Senate, he was accused of producing biological weapons. But Schmitz’s ideas came to fruition. Since 1982, scientists, dressed in protective suits, have been conducting research into diseases.

“Air is pumped into the suits through hoses of the type normally used in the garden, so that we look like the Michelin Man in the tyre advertisements,” says Schmitz with a smile. The scientists can work for 100 minutes in the suits without additional air from outside.

About a dozen people work in the laboratories. In case of emergency they can call for help, as one colleague oversees the work from outside. Samples are sent regularly to the institute from other parts of germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, the World Health Organisation in Geneva and from UN troops stationed in Africa.

Schmitz, 65, is still working albeit for free, although he is officially retired. He has a couple of projects that will keep him busy for a few years. “There is still so much to be done,” he says.

First Published: Jan 23, 2006 12:05 IST