Hawaii's Emergency Response Lab ready to deal with deadliest bacteria and viruses

Rebecca Sciulli
Rebecca Sciulli

By Mari-Ela David - bio | email

PEARL CITY (KHNL) - Hawaii's Lab is keeping a sharp eye on the swine flu virus. On Monday, KHNL showed an exclusive look inside the facility.

On Tuesday, KHNL went further inside the facility, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Emergency Response Lab, which handles some of the world's deadliest bacteria and viruses.

Scientists at the lab have not detected any signs of the swine flu so far.

But if the virus reaches Hawaii, the Emergency Response Lab can identify it within 24 hours of receiving a sample. The Lab would then send the sample to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to confirm its findings, which can be done within two days.

At the State Department of Health's Emergency Response Lab are well-contained suites. Only those with highly protective gear are allowed inside. It's where scientists can test dangerous agents, such as the swine flu.

"Once we receive the respiratory sample we process it in a biological suite so we can inactivate it," said Rebecca Sciulli, the Lab's Bioterrorism Coordinator.

To inactivate means cracking the virus open so it's not infectious. That way, it's safe to bring it into another room, where scientists can use a machine to extract the virus's genes.

"We use it for West Nile, we use it for Avian Influenza," said Sciulli.

The next step is to make several copies of the virus, then analyze its building blocks.

"{We have} a genetic analyzer. What we use {it} for is sequencing. Once the sample is run through the analyzer, then it goes to {a} computer," said Sciulli.

The computer runs the virus's genetic make-up through a database, which already includes the swine flu virus.

"So all we need to do is access that database to see if it matches so we can say yes, this flu strain is the same as the one in California, or in Mexico," said Sciulli.

The Emergency Response Lab can not only test for the virus in humans, but in animals as well.

While the State Lab can detect and identify swine flu, the Centers for Disease Control is responsible for confirming cases, and coordinating efforts in creating a vaccine.