Laboratory complex for advanced pathogen research

Orion is a laboratory complex for advanced pathogen research that will be available to the Brazilian and international scientific communities investigating pathogenic agents (viruses, bacteria, fungi) and how they affect human health. The plans for Orion include Latin America’s first maximum biological containment facilities (BSL-4), and the first in the world connected to a particle accelerator, Sirius.

It will also contain BSL-2 and BSL-3 spaces, laboratories for basic research, analytic techniques, and advanced competencies for biological imaging, such as microscopy. The work that will take place at Orion will advance knowledge on pathogens and related diseases and support surveillance activities and public health policies.

All this infrastructure will benefit the development of diagnostic methods, vaccines, treatments, and epidemiological strategies, for example, in turn strengthening the Brazilian health system and fostering national sovereignty to face current and future health scenarios. Orion is overseen by the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM), a social organization supervised by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCTI).

Open infrastructure

Orion will have the potential to benefit various areas such as health, science and technology, defense, and the environment, and will be available to the scientific community and public agencies to respond to health challenges that face Brazilian society.

Spanning approximately 30,000 m², it will include corporate areas, an animal research facility, laboratories for electron microscopy and cryomicroscopy, advanced bioimaging techniques, and a BSL-3/BSL-4 containment laboratory training center to train specialized professionals in Brazil for work in BSL-3 and BSL-4 settings.

Training and qualification program

CNPEM offers a program for training and qualification to work in high and maximum-level biosafety containment infrastructures (BSL-3 and BSL-4, respectively). This unprecedented initiative in Brazil is intended to train human resources in competencies that are still not widespread here and in other Latin American countries. The program includes theoretical activities and practical sessions held in a training laboratory that is a replica of real facilities inside a maximum containment biosafety facility (BSL-4), where routine safety protocols can be simulated without risk of infection or handling pathogens.


Management & funding

Orion is overseen by the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM), a private, non-profit organization supervised by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI). The project is part of the federal government’s New Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), and is funded with resources from the National Scientific and Technological Development Fund (FNDCT/MCTI) and supported by the Ministry of Health (MS). This initiative is part of New Industry Brazil (Nova Indústria Brasil, NIB), an industrial policy to boost national development through 2033. Orion will serve as an instrument of national sovereignty, competence, and security in the fields of science and technology for research, defense, and human, animal, and environmental health. The creation of Orion is intended to strengthen the Health Economic-Industrial Complex (CEIS), an initiative coordinated by the Ministry of Health to meet priority needs from the Brazilian Unified Heath System (SUS).

Why the name Orion?

The Orion project was named for the constellation and the three stars known as Orion’s Belt or the Three Marias which point toward the star Sirius, in a reference to Brazil’s electron accelerator. Like the stars of Orion’s Belt, Orion will have three beamlines connecting it to Sirius: Sibipiruna, Timbó, and Hibisco.

Research targets

Orion will make it possible to safely conduct research on pathogens, cells, tissue, and organisms, permitting comprehension of biological phenomena related to the development of illnesses and potentially guiding the development of future diagnostic methods, vaccines, and treatments.

All of Orion’s structural, technical, and scientific apparatus will provide unrivaled conditions for investigating group 3 and 4 pathogens capable of causing severe and potentially transmittable diseases.

Various pathogens are included in the highest biological risk class (group 4) due to the risk they present to individual and collective health; Ebola is likely the best known of this group. In Brazil, one example is the Sabiá virus (SABV), a group 4 biological pathogen that causes a severe hemorrhagic fever. Although this virus was identified in Brazil, samples are stored abroad and cannot be studied domestically due to the lack of a maximum containment infrastructure. Alongside SABV there are other class 4 arenaviruses circulating in Latin America such as the Junín (which causes Argentinean hemorrhagic fever), Guanarito (the agent of Venezuelan hemorrhagic fever), and Machupo (the cause of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever) viruses.

Within the global context, other examples include the henipaviruses Hendra and Nipah which were recently identified in Australia and Malaysia, respectively. To deal with these infectious agents capable of causing severe and highly transmissible diseases, maximum biosafety containment facilities (BSL-4) like those planned for Orion are essential.

Above all, Orion will be an instrument of national sovereignty that will equip Brazil to prevent and face future health crises. Infrastructure of this type is essential for understanding the biology of high-risk pathogens in order to develop strategies for treatment and control and surveillance activities, for example.

Versatility for Research & Development

The technical and scientific requirements of Project Orion were developed to meet a variety of needs ranging from strategic problems in public health to fundamental research in the areas of microbiology and infectology. On the right are some of the activities that will be possible at Orion, illustrating its versatility and strategic importance for advancing science, national sovereignty, and public health activities.

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Biological agents are classified by health authorities according to different risk classes. Each risk class indicates the biosafety containment level (BSL) of laboratories dedicated to handling these biological agents, and may vary according to assessed risk . The different levels are abbreviated as BSL-1, BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4, and each must meet rigorous international safety requirements. BSL-4 laboratories combine specialized and redundant safety measures intended to contain group 4 pathogens to protect those who work in these facilities, along with the community and the environment. Some of these measures are described below.




Frequently asked questions

Why is a BSL-4 lab and infrastructure like this necessary?

The pandemic recently showed us the importance of technical mastery, suitable infrastructure, and qualified human resources in responding to public health challenges. Within this context, establishing a biosafety level 4 laboratory is strategic for the country and fulfills a long-standing demand from Brazil’s health and science professionals and institutions.

Although cases of disease caused by group 4 pathogens are a reality in various places around the world, including Brazil, few countries have the conditions to monitor, isolate, and research these biological agents, much less develop diagnostic methods, vaccines, or treatments. Without suitable infrastructure for advanced pathogen research, Brazil is dependent on other countries with BSL-4 labs, which affects national sovereignty when facing health crises related to group 4 pathogens.

The Sabiá virus (SABV) is one example of a pathogen identified in Brazil with recent case notifications that cannot be studied without a BSL-4 laboratory. Alongside SABV there are other arenaviruses circulating in Latin America that must be handled in this type of specialized infrastructure, such as the Junín, Guanarito, and Machupo viruses mentioned above.

Who is funding this project?

The project is part of the federal government’s New Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) and funded with resources from the National Scientific and Technological Development Fund (FNDCT) and the Ministry of Science and Technology, with support from the Ministry of Health. This initiative is part of the federal government’s New Industry Brazil (NIB) stimulus policy and will serve as an instrument of national sovereignty, competence, and security in the fields of science and technology for research, defense, and human, animal, and environmental health. Orion was also planned to strengthen the Health Economic-Industrial Complex (CEIS), an initiative coordinated by the Ministry of Health and intended to meet priority demands from the Brazilian Unified Health System (SUS).

How will CNPEM's experience with Sirius benefit Project Orion?

A fundamental aspect of what our experience with Sirius brings to Orion is the similarity of the technical solutions, which prioritize safety and reliability. Nationalizing the solutions and knowledge in planning the subsystems also benefits Project Orion by reducing installation costs, decreasing uncertainties, fostering innovation, and permitting more transparent, better planned, and safer operations. Sirius was the first large-scale, internationally competitive scientific facility constructed in Brazil, and the laboratory complex for advanced pathogen research will be built along the same lines.

What makes Orion different from other laboratories?

Orion will span roughly 24,500 square meters, with various facilities and a new concept in the history of synchrotrons and biosafety research labs worldwide: a connection with three beamlines from the Sirius particle accelerator. Because of this connection, the project was named for the constellation with three stars that point toward the star known as Sirius. Besides the BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory facilities and research stations incorporating synchrotron light, Orion will also combine basic research laboratories, analytical techniques, and advanced competencies for biological imaging such as electron microscopy. All these scientific competencies together in the same complex will set it apart from all the other infrastructure available in Brazil and abroad.

How will it be connected to Sirius?

The three new beamlines at Sirius (Hibisco, Timbó, and Sibipiruna) will be part of this expansive infrastructure dedicated to basic research, analytic techniques, and bioimaging planned at Orion. These three research stations with their respective synchrotron beamlines will allow scientists to obtain quantitative and qualitative data on the structure of systems infected with class 3 and 4 pathogens, from the subcellular up to the organism level. They will generate 3D images that will permit research ranging from studies of cells on a nanometric scale to the dynamics of inflammation in tissues and organ damage up to monitoring the infection process throughout the entire body.

How will Orion contribute to training human resources in Brazil?

Orion can also be seen as strategic for Brazil in terms of training a variety of human resources. Alongside the construction works and technological developments involved in the project, CNPEM also offers a national training program for high and maximum biological containment infrastructures that focuses on developing skills which are not yet widespread in Brazil and other Latin American countries.

This training program includes partnerships with international institutions that are references for Brazilian researchers working in BSL-4 laboratories abroad. It includes hands-on activities in simulated laboratory environments inside a mock-up laboratory at CNPEM without infectious materials or risk of contagion, under the supervision of professionals trained to assess the researchers’ individual skills in dealing with the conditions established in biosafety protocols.

Construction of the facilities will necessitate generation of related jobs and functions and circulation of information about the project, with ongoing communications between those who are directly involved and society at large. The design and construction stages will depend on highly qualified professionals who are able to understand the technical challenges that will arise. Later, the maintenance team will need to master critical protocols and procedures to safeguard the research teams so they can work in an appropriate and safe environment.

Later, research teams from across Brazil and foreign visitors will arrive, and they will not only be responsible for following the protocols and good practices required, but will also have an unequaled opportunity to access cutting-edge facilities that will allow extraordinary discoveries. Finally, teams in the areas of communications, management, and partnerships with public and private institutions will carry out their work as all these processes are underway.

Will Orion be accessible to the entire academic community?

Yes. Orion is intended to be available to researchers and institutions everywhere in order to respond to health challenges that affect Brazil as a whole. For this reason, the operating model has been discussed with various Brazilian research and health entities, along with researchers from the domestic and international scientific communities and public agencies such as the Ministry of Health. Research in an environment like Orion is very different than at Sirius. Analysis utilizing a synchrotron can be done relatively quickly, but research projects at Orion will require longer periods of time due to the nature of the samples involved; still, it will essentially be an open facility accessed through project proposals.

Will operations at Orion impact user access to CNPEM's other open facilities?

No. While access to Orion will have its own regulations established by a series of security procedures, it will operate independently and will not affect users or activities at the other facilities on the campus, or regular access to the Brazilian National Laboratories at CNPEM.

Can this type of infrastructure be built within an urban setting?

Yes. There are many examples of successful BSL-4 laboratories that are not located in wilderness environments, specifically because of the logistical importance of the selected location and the guarantee of the protective protocols. These examples include the traditional Robert Koch Institute, which is located within the city of Berlin and contains a BSL-4 laboratory on its grounds. The complex was officially inaugurated in 2015, and after testing phases it began regular operations in late 2018. Other examples of maximum biosafety containment laboratories in urban settings can be seen in the United States, such as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) facility affiliated with Boston University adjacent to its urban campus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, and the Integrated Research Facility (IRF) of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Maryland.

What phases will be involved in this project?

Once the construction phase is complete, Orion will undergo technical and scientific commissioning and certification for international security standards in order to subsequently begin regular operations. The beamlines connecting Sirius to Orion will also undergo commissioning before they enter regular use in research projects involving pathogens of interest.

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