New high-security lab at Ulm University
Researchers strive to understand SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens

Ulm University

Virology research at the Ulm University Medical Centre is expanding. A contained lab of the second-highest security level (S3 lab) is currently under construction on the campus in the form of a container. Here, scientists will not only be researching SARS-CoV-2, but also other pathogens such as HIV. The total construction costs, including initial equipment and furnishings, amount to approximately 8.4 million euros. The first modules were erected on Wednesday, 19 April.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 essentially presented researchers around the globe with new challenges overnight. Rapid antigen tests and effective vaccines had to be developed within a very short period of time. Researchers at Ulm University were also involved in researching the novel zoonosis. Their work included searching for antiviral substances to be used against the virus. However, up to now, only one level 3 lab has been available for experimental investigation of dangerous, airborne pathogens,  and it has primarily been used for research on the pathogen causing tuberculosis. The new S3 lab not only improves conditions for researching the coronavirus, it also enables a faster and more effective response when new viral diseases arise.

Extensive safety measures ensure that viruses don’t leak into the environment

A level 3 lab is especially designed for work with dangerous or potentially lethal pathogens. In practice, an S3 lab is often used to research medications that can be used to fight infectious diseases, as is the case with this new lab. In addition to developing antiviral drugs, the researchers hope to find out how SARS-CoV-2 adapts to human immune defences. The closed system has been designed with extensive safety measures to ensure that no infectious viruses or other pathogens are released into the environment. This includes a vacuum system, an airlock with interlocking doors, a high-powered, high-efficiency particulate air filter for floating particles and an autoclave for sterilisation purposes. Staff who work in an S3 lab must be trained and certified and are required to wear protective gear including face masks and safety goggles.

“The new S3 lab will bring the already outstanding standard of virology research at Ulm University up to a new level, giving us new insights into fighting dangerous pathogens”, related Professor Michael Weber, president of Ulm University. “Ulm University is thus making important contributions toward tackling major societal and medical challenges, such as a better understanding of SARS-CoV-2”.

On behalf of the Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts (Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst, MWK), Ministerial Director Dr Hans Reiter paid a visit to Ulm University. “Successful research necessitates optimal conditions. The new S3 lab is an important building block in advancing the research infrastructure and cutting-edge research at Ulm University Medical Centre”, said Ministerial Director Reiter. “The researchers have a lab at their disposal that has been designed especially for the hugely important scientific work with highly infectious pathogens”.

Completion in third quarter

Initially, the lab will be used by researchers from the Institute of Molecular Virology at Ulm University Medical Centre, under the co-direction of Professors Frank Kirchhoff and Jan Münch, along with scientists from the Institute of Virology under the direction of Professor Thomas Stamminger. The structural work should be standing next week. The fully equipped lab with eight workstations is scheduled to be handed over to the researchers in the third quarter of 2023.

The erection of the S3 lab was made possible at Ulm University by the financial support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and REACT-EU (“Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe”) at a maximum of 5 million euros. The remaining costs of 3.4 million euros will be covered by the Ulm University Medical Faculty. Within the framework of the overall project management, Ulm University Medical Centre took over the realisation of the S3 lab for the Medical Faculty.

The S3 lab in detail:
Lab size: approx. 80 square metres
Workstations: 8 (can be expanded to 12)
Start of operation: third quarter of 2023
Cost: approx. 8.4 million euros
Planning: Scherr & Klemke
Implementation: HT Group

Text and mediacontact: Daniela Stang
Translation: Kate Gaugler

The first module for the new high-security lab
The first module for the new high-security lab being erected on the Ulm University campus (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt/Uni Ulm)
Group photo
Present at the erection (from left): Prof Thomas Stamminger, medical director of the Institute of Virology, University President Prof Michael Weber, Professor Thomas Wirth, dean of the Medical Faculty, the co-directors of the Institute of Molecular Virology Prof Jan Münch and Prof Frank Kirchhoff, Ministerial Director Dr Hans Reiter from the MWK, Dr Uta Sprenger and Dr Sabine Gerbersdorf, both MWK, and Prof Udo X Kaisers, chief medical director of the Ulm University Medical Centre (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt/Ulm University)
Ministerial Director Dr Hans Reiter, Chief Medical Director of Ulm University Medical Centre Prof Udo X Kaisers and University President Prof Michael Weber
Ministerial Director Dr Hans Reiter, Chief Medical Director of Ulm University Medical Centre Prof Udo X Kaisers and University President Prof Michael Weber presenting the S3 lab plans (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt/Uni Ulm)