Atop a brand-new building at the University of Minnesota, a mechanical room hums with huge HEPA filters -- a final safeguard against the escape of any deadly pathogens from the gleaming laboratory below.

This room crowns a $2.44 million project that will help the state immediately respond to outbreaks of diseases that could potentially spread from animals to people -- including the highly lethal form of bird flu, should it ever hit here.

Today, agriculture, animal-health and other officials who supported the project will tour the lab, which is to begin operating in a few weeks.

The lab adds to an arsenal that has made the state one of the most prepared in the nation to deal with a bird-flu outbreak. The building is designed to protect not only the lab's workers but also the community and the state's animal populations as well, scientists said.

"We have to be in a constant state of preparedness," said Ron Joki, senior scientist at the College of Veterinary Medicine and the new lab's manager. "If that virus doesn't hit, another virus might."

Called a Biosafety Level 3 lab, it's unique in that it is designed for the necropsies, or examinations, of dead animals weighing up to 100 pounds. Special features include a giant autoclave that will use steam to sterilize the carcasses once they have been examined.

Jim Collins, director of the Diagnostic Laboratory, said the University began this project in 2005, when a lethal strain of bird flu became a global concern.

Collins emphasized that this is not a research lab housing various pathogens, but rather a diagnostic facility that will respond when disease hits.

The finding of a suspected case of bird flu here would trigger the lab to move from a Biosafety Level 2, for which it will be used most of the time, to the higher level of biosafety. The lab might also be used to handle a surge of dead poultry from another state.

Workers are being trained how to respond to such an outbreak: They would don disposable suits that cover most of their skin, taping on gloves. Custom-sized respirators will cover faces, and even a day's growth of beard won't be allowed so that an airtight fit can be ensured. The workers must shower after leaving the lab, which is next to the existing Veterinary Diagnostic Lab on the St. Paul campus.

The cleansing air flow through the Biosafety Level 3 lab will be turned up. Wastewater will be chemically treated.

For the future, a fund drive is underway to buy a $350,000 boiler system that would decontaminate wastewater more efficiently, Joki said.

Respiratory poultry diseases, such as the deadly form of bird flu, which has never been seen in this country, and Exotic Newcastle disease, which has occurred in the United States, are the most dangerous threats to commercial poultry production today.

University of Minnesota scientists such as Dr. André Ziegler hunt for such diseases, placing priorities on those that can spread from animals to people. Ziegler, an avian pathologist who worked with other scientists to contain an outbreak of Exotic Newcastle disease in California a few years ago, said the new lab could protect those diagnosing a variety of pathogens.

"The facility affords flexibility in the event that we have one of those diseases in which we'd need some additional personnel protection," Ziegler said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be highly pathogenic avian influenza. ... It could be any number of things."

Joy Powell • 612-673-7750