Inside is a screw-on plastic tub, inside of which is a sheet of bubble wrap, swaddling a plastic tube containing a few drops of pink liquid. It is in this float that the researchers hope to be their first living sample of the Variante Omicron.
But we can’t see all of that yet, because before the box can be opened, it needs to be brought inside the high-level containment lab.
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This one, at the MRC Center for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, is one of the few in the UK authorized to treat pathogens as potentially troublesome as new ones. SRAS-CoV-2 variants.
Entering means dressing in disposable coveralls, not a pair of gloves and overshoes but two, and a special balaclava with its own air supply. All of this PPE is as much about preventing the virus sample from being contaminated as it is about ensuring my safety and that of the scientists.
Because although a sample of a a new variant of COVID is potentially dangerous, it is also very precious.
While Omicron variant clock case in England, by the time a case is confirmed, the virus is usually dead. The liquid that a standard PCR swab is immersed in not only isolates the genetic material of the virus, it also kills the virus to ensure the safety of laboratory workers.
But in this lab, they need a live virus. They need to see the Omicron variant in action to answer the world’s pressing questions: Can it escape our vaccine antibodies?
Is it more infectious than the Delta strain? Is the illness it causes more serious or milder than the one we are already facing?
This sample was therefore specially collected by scientists at Public Health Scotland from a person suspected of being infected with Omicron.
Further sequencing in the lab will confirm the exact strain of the virus – but researchers here say they are over 90% certain this sample will give them the research material they need.
In recent days, other laboratories in the UK have also obtained similar samples. But it is the first to be isolated in Scotland and the first that we have been able to see.
We observe the unpacking of the sample under a special cabinet which draws the air away from the researcher handling the sample and directs it to a filtration system.
The next step is to take the virus and use it to infect human cells grown in the lab. These cells will then be used to “grow” the virus until there are enough stocks available for the range of experiments they need to do.
We are not allowed to film that. Although the risk of spillage or contamination is minimal, visitors are not allowed into the laboratory when the live virus is being handled.
But we see cells under the microscope infected with previous strains of SARS-CoV2. Compared to the healthy, some opened up, others merged into large masses resembling a giant cell in which all their contents have accumulated.
How quickly Omicron infects and destroys cells in the lab can be a rough indicator of how quickly it can invade a real person. But the most urgent experiment is to establish whether the antibodies of people vaccinated, or even boosted, will bind to the variant.
This will give us a first clue as to whether Omicron is going to cause us a real problem or not.
But scientists tell me that this work will take time. Several days to cultivate the virus. A few weeks to get antibody results.
This timeline means it’s likely we’ll get the first clues about the severity of the variant from outbreaks like the one developing in South Africa, while scientists in the lab work out the details. But if it’s about designing new vaccines or drugs, and hopefully it won’t, these details matter.