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Opinion: Lab Safety Lapses Tell Larger Story

Recent security issues within US government labs reveal deficiencies in biorisk management programs.

By | July 22, 2014

CDC, DEBORA CARTAGENARecent news recounting the lapses and failures of high-profile laboratory programs serve to highlight the critical role that biorisk management plays in ensuring public health and safety. First, it was uncovered that several time-forgotten vials of freeze-dried smallpox virus were discovered in an aging storage facility on the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that a relatively benign strain of “bird flu” was cross-contaminated with the dangerous H5N1 strain at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a separate incident reported by the CDC, several dozen lab workers were potentially exposed to anthrax. In response to these events, CDC Director Thomas Frieden announced that the agency’s avian influenza and anthrax laboratories would cease activity until safety and security issues were reconciled.  

The recent news of these failures in security at two of the world’s most reputable and well-respected institutions is unsettling, especially given the potentially severe consequences of mishandling infectious agents and toxins. The public’s alarm is somewhat justified, in consideration of the “anthrax letters” in 2001, and a biocontainment lab depressurization at CDC in 2012. Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases in the history of humankind, and its use as a biological weapon dates back centuries. Even more concerning is the fact that, because smallpox was eradicated as a clinical disease in the 1980s, we now have a human population that is extremely susceptible to smallpox exposure.

What lessons can we learn from these recent incidents at the CDC and NIH? The good news is that no human exposure to smallpox has been reported. The bad news is that all three incidents put the public at risk. It is the central dogma of biosecurity to always know where, in what form, and in what quantity potentially hazardous agents are stored. The primary lesson learned in all these cases is the importance of robust biosafety and biosecurity management programs in protecting lab workers and researchers, animal populations, and the public from serious harm. 

To address these issues, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing, the outcome of which was increased scrutiny on laboratories working with high-risk pathogens, such as Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) and BSL4 facilities. At this time, there is no clear indication that this increased level of scrutiny will stop at federal labs. Private institutions that receive federal research funding and oversee these laboratories, many of which are regulated through the National Select Agent Registry, are the likely next targets of inspection. Right now, all laboratories should be asking themselves how and when this additional scrutiny will affect their programs. There are no “ifs.”

In addition to likely regulatory and process changes, the exposure of headline risk poses a public relations challenge. If the nation’s federal labs are in questionable shape, the public will immediately to question the safety of the laboratories in their neighboring universities and research institutions, asking the very real question, “How safe are they?” Institutional biosafety officers, directors of environmental health and safety programs, and heads of research programs should capitalize on this increased attention.  Inventory management, exposure control, incident response, emergency response, occupational health, medical surveillance, and universal precaution policies should be dusted off, reworked, and re-energized. These are the fundamentals of biorisk management, and the tried and true method for creating public safety and public trust.   

In summary, the increased scrutiny that will result from the latest biosecurity failings can be good news for health and safety programs, as it will serve to drive risk mitigation across the country. While we can all agree that scrutiny is not an ideal form of attention, it is attention nonetheless, and any attention is good for the long-term health of biorisk management programs. The safer they are, the safer we all are.

Ryan Burnette is the vice president of WCG Biosafety, a division of the WIRB-Copernicus Group, and author of Biosecurity: Understanding, Assessing and Preventing the Threat. Jonathan Richmond is an expert consultant to WCG Biosafety. He is the former director of the CDC Office of Safety, Health and Environment and former chief of the Safety Operations Section for the NIH’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety.

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Avatar of: Brian Hanley

Brian Hanley

Posts: 24

July 22, 2014

This article is an offense to science and ethics. Excuse me? Two "experts in biosecurity" who don't know the difference between weaponized anthrax and what is out there in the environment? Give me a break. These two are fishing for government contracts and publicity.

“Using air sampling techniques, Dahlgren and co-workers estimated that in one woolen mill, workers were inhaling between 600 and 1300 [anthrax] spores during an eight hour shift with no ill effects.” – R.C. Spencer, 2003

Unless it is weaponized, anthrax rarely causes respiratory illness. The natural particle size of anthrax spores are too large to get deep into the lungs. By contrast, a relatively small fraction of woolen workers have antibodies to anthrax, a testament to how well our bodies keep the natural spores out. ... http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2014/07/15/anthrax-smallpox-cdc-keeping-priorities-straight/

Here's an anthrax map. http://www.vetmed.lsu.edu/whocc/mp_world.htm 

Everything except smallpox is out there in the world. People are exposed to anthrax daily in the USA and all over the world with some dying every year. Anthrax lives in the guts of earthworms. People really die of influenza - some 36,000 people every year. People die of bubonic plague, pertussis, etc. Animals carry these diseases. You walk by bubonic plague in far more dangerous form when you go for a walk in National Park or forest. It is quite likely you have breathed in anthrax in your lifetime, or gotten it on your skin with no ill effect.

Pretending that national labs can be perfect is baloney. Suggesting that the threat is from inside the labs that support our fight against disease is nonsensical. It's not. When those labs were built, smallpox was common. Samples were forgotten, that's all.

Here's reality. When we make it more expensive to work on real disease threats, we slow down development of cures, identifications and treatment. That kills people outside the labs.

Cut it out with this hysteria-mongering drivel about how awful all this is. It's just not true! Articles like this do not help anybody except those who pen them. Toot your horn - fine. But don't lie to us when you do it. Yes, fellas, I say you lied. You lied by ommission of salient facts and by implication that labs are the threat to the public.

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