On a small and remote island bathed by the icy waters of the Baltic there is a place, almost completely closed to the outside, that holds within it some of humanity’s worst nightmares. It is the island of Riems , home of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute.
The institution, founded more than a century ago, currently depends on the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection and is dedicated to investigating in high security conditions the diseases that affect animals and that, in many cases, they are transmissible to humans through the phenomenon known as zoonosis.
The ‘Alcatraz of viruses’
The exceptional security measures at the Riems facilities , designed to prevent an infectious outbreak from leaving the island at all costs, have earned the place the nickname the ‘Alcatraz of viruses’.
In fact, Riems’ laboratory is categorized as a level 4 risk site , the highest in Germany. As the institute itself explains , the people who work there are subject to strict protocols in the handling of infectious agents, the material used and in the design of the experiments; In addition, they must comply with strict ethical imperatives both in the design, in the realization and in the publication of the results of the investigations, carefully evaluating the possible uses of their discoveries (both beneficial and harmful) and the risks that derive from them. .
Entrance to the different facilities is highly restricted , and authorized persons must (in addition to giving disinfectant showers when entering and leaving the island) in each case employ very specific security measures in order to avoid any contagion or accidental leakage.
The entire laboratory is protected by a high wall topped by barbed wire, and the only entrance to the island from the mainland is through a dam that can be closed in the unlikely event of an outbreak of any kind.
A century of history
The founding of the Riems laboratory dates back to 1910 , when the man for whom the institute bears the name needed to find a place that was secluded, inaccessible, and depopulated enough to be able to safely pursue his research on foot-and-mouth disease.
At that time, the disease was a plague that ravaged German farms, affecting cows and pigs. Loeffler, a disciple of the celebrated physician and microbiologist Robert Koch, was commissioned by the Prussian government to find the cause and, hopefully, a cure for it.
Originally, he settled in the nearby town of Greifswald, but an accidental escape that spread the epidemic to nearby farms forced him to stop research and move to the lonely island of Riems.
A few years later, the history of the laboratory takes a more sinister turn. Renamed ‘Reichsforschungsanstalt Insel Riems’ (Reich Research Institute of Riems Island), during the Nazi era it was the scene of atrocious experiments aimed at the development of biological weapons under the direction of Erich Traub (subordinate of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, and Kurt Blome, head of the Reich’s biological warfare program) including some with foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest.
Shortly after the war, Traub was evacuated to the United States, supposedly as part of the famous Operation Paperclip (which had the objective of transferring to the country a good number of Nazi scientists who had worked in cutting-edge technologies) and ended up participating in various projects. of the North American Government.
The founding of the German Democratic Republic saw a change of course, dedicating itself to the development of vaccines ; an objective that, together with others, such as research or the development of prophylactic measures, it maintains today.
In Riems, in addition to the scientists who work there, many other forms of life inhabit. Aside from the island’s natural flora and fauna, the most obvious perhaps are the cattle that serve as subjects for the experiments.
Cows, pigs, alpacas and goats are some of these animals, on which this kind of research is only allowed to be conducted in two other laboratories around the world.
It is important to note, however, that the Institute maintains high standards of animal welfare (in fact, a good part of its research is directed to this area), trying to avoid all forms of unnecessary suffering for animals and only using them in the experiments when essential to obtain useful information.
In hidden chambers inside the laboratories, however, the most famous guests of the island of Reims hide, and they are beings of a much smaller size. They are microbes such as those responsible for plague, anthrax, rabies, Ebola, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (‘mad cows’) or, more recently, COVID-19.