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Secrets of Germany’s ‘Alcatraz’ virus island revealed

by Ace Damon
Secrets of Germany's 'Alcatraz' virus island revealed

RIEMS, GERMANY –
On an island in the Baltic Sea, once used by the Nazis for biological weapons research, German scientists are developing life-saving virus vaccines.

Access to the island of Riems is highly restricted.

Scientists who work there need to have disinfectant showers when entering or leaving and wearing body suits.

And dozens of animals, including sheep and cows, were deliberately infected with viruses as part of research to monitor the effects of disease.

"We really are the Alcatraz of viruses, a kind of virus arrest," Franz Conraths, deputy head of the island's Friedrich Loeffler Institute, told AFP.

Located south of the picturesque island of Ruegen, Riems has become a global center for the study of pathogens such as rabies, African swine fever and Ebola.

Visitors must pass security controls and laboratories with the most dangerous viruses, as well as stables with infected animals, are at security level 4 – the highest in Germany.

"We do everything possible to make sure they don't spread," Conraths said of the viruses on his island.

"It's very important to our work."

– Preparing for an outbreak –

The Friedrich Loeffler Institute is the oldest center for the study of viruses in the world. It was founded in 1910 by Loeffler, a pioneering German scientist.

There is no similar facility in Europe, although there are similar facilities in Australia and Canada.

The institute used to be housed in a single building on the island, but has now expanded to cover almost the entire 1.3 km outcrop.

After World War II, the center met in communist East Germany and began developing vaccines.

In the 1970s, it was linked to the mainland by a dam.

The government has invested about 300 million euros ($ 334 million) in the institute since 2008 to upgrade the infrastructure and now there are 89 labs and 163 stables.

"Our biggest task is to prepare preparations for an outbreak," said Conraths, setting an example of African swine fever that was detected in central Europe, raising concerns among German pig breeders.

"We have to expect this any day," he said.

There are between 80 and 100 large animals on the island: alpacas, wild boars, cows, goats and sheep.

The researchers said that when animals get too sick, they are sacrificed so as not to let them suffer.

"We do our best to do our research without having to do animal testing," said Martin Beer, head of the institute's diagnostic department.

But he added that "just by infecting an animal" researchers could find out why animals get sick, how the disease develops, and how animals react.

Because the tests are for vaccines that can save millions of animals, protect farmers' livelihoods and alleviate hunger, Beer said they were "justified."

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