July 17, 2014

Biosafety Lapses With Anthrax, Smallpox and Influenza Pathogens in Government Laboratories: Federal Oversight Revisited

Recent developments regarding the biosafety practices in several government laboratories have raised concerns about the containment of potentially dangerous pathogens in scientific research. In the past month, a series of separate incidents exposed weaknesses in the oversight and management of dangerous pathogens. These included the accidental exposure of CDC scientists to anthrax in CDC labs, the discovery of forgotten vials of viable smallpox virus in an FDA lab housed at the NIH, and an unintentional cross-contamination of a benign influenza strain with a dangerous H5N1 influenza and its subsequent transfer. All of these events involve naturally occurring pathogens, but these events also occur at a time when public debate continues over the deliberate creation of potentially dangerous pathogens in the field of dual-use research of concern (DURC). With scientists reporting the creation of new pathogens in order to define what genetic changes correlate with pathogenicity or transmissibility, concerns emerged as to how such scientific detail should be publicly shared, and how such pathogens were to be safely contained in the laboratory environment. Most of the attention focused on the publication of genetic detail, evidencing concerns that the pathogens could be reconstructed for malicious intent. However, an equally serious concern related to the possibility that the newly designed pathogens could be released inadvertently, due to laboratory or personnel errors. This recent series of safety lapses now amplify the concerns over the general state of biosafety practices in laboratories handling the most dangerous pathogens, whether natural or engineered. Although the standards for the containment of dangerous pathogens in laboratories are well-known and generally followed, one untoward release of a high-risk infectious agent could be catastrophic. In general, there are established biosafety protocols which define the type of required facilities, procedures and personnel based on the level of risk that a particular pathogen poses to public health and/or the environment. The guidelines assign a biosafety level (BSL) based on that analysis; the high-containment BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs are required for work with the most dangerous pathogens. In addition, the transport of such pathogens is also managed with protocols that establish safe transfer. The CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, conceded the pattern of biosafety lapses in a press conference and at a Congressional hearing yesterday. Dr. Frieden has shut down several labs and instituted a moratorium on some shipments of pathogens. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has conducted several studies on laboratory safety in high-containment laboratories (private or public), specifically noting the absence of any overarching federal body to oversee these laboratories, particularly in view of their proliferation in the years since 9/11 (the anthrax incidents), as bioterror-related research has increased (note recent controversy over a BSL-4 lab established in Boston). The GAO was represented at yesterday’s hearing, and it reminded Congress of their previous investigations and recommendations on laboratory safety; the recent incidents may cause Congress to revisit this work and act accordingly.

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