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Tick-borne virus experiments to begin at Biosafety Level 4 facility in Tokyo

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) said it plans to start research as early as May using actual viruses at its facility in a suburban city of Tokyo -- the first in the country to be designated as a laboratory to treat Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 agents such as the Ebola virus.

    Using monkeys infected with SFTS (severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome), which is known as a tick-borne disease, the researchers will conduct an inquiry into preventing an SFTS outbreak. The research, which is expected to take place over a period of two months, was approved by an NIID-affiliated committee.

    Infection with SFTS occurs when one is bitten by one of two different types of ticks that carry the virus. The first Japanese case was confirmed three years ago, and a cure is being sought. It has a mortality rate of nearly 30 percent, and has spread in western Japan.

    SFTS is categorized by the Japanese law on infectious diseases as a type-three disease agent that could affect people's health and lives. Because it is less dangerous than diseases such as Ebola, which is in the more severe type-one disease agent category, the research could have been conducted at a BSL-3 facility. The BSL-4 lab in the city of Musashimurayama ended up being selected, however, due to its comparatively higher level of disease agent confinement.

    The BSL system was designated by the World Health Organization as a four-tiered system for determining the danger level of disease agents. According to the act on infectious diseases, six different agents including the Ebola virus presently fall within the category of Level 4, which is the most dangerous.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare determines which facilities are able to handle such agents. BSL-4 facilities must have labs with lower air pressure than the outside and high-grade double-layered filters for releasing exhaust air.

    "Because our facility was selected (for this purpose), I would like to carry out the research with the utmost consideration for safety," commented Dr. Masayuki Saijo, director of NIID's Department of Virology.

    He added, "The viruses that we will be handling are no different from those used in past research. They do not have a higher level of danger."

    The facility was completed in 1981, but continued to function at the BSL-3 lab due to opposition from local residents. The Musashimurayama Municipal Government gave permission to begin utilizing it as a BSL-4 facility last year in August.

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