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Are Biosafety Failures the New Norm?

As work with deadly pathogens becomes more advanced, are our biosecurity and biosafety practices regressing?

Lab safety failures have become almost a commonality in the United States. The 2014 incident at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where smallpox samples were found in a discarded freezer box, as well as the improper shipping and handling of dangerous pathogens such as avian influenza and Ebola, have all drawn heightened attention to how the United States handles pathogens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently suspended work in BSL-4 labs (the highest security laboratories) after it was found that an air supply hose attached to researcher body suits may have been compromised. The CDC press release on February 17, 2017 noted that they learned from “the company that now owns the manufacturer that their current stock of air hoses was not certified to be used for breathing air. The CDC will be testing the air that comes through our laboratory hoses to determine whether it contains any chemical compounds that could pose a health risk.” While there haven’t been any known exposures and the air being used in these hoses is already filtered for pathogens, the CDC has halted BSL-4 lab work and is performing air quality tests and employee health checks as precautionary measures.

The growing scrutiny of laboratory safety in the United States has only been fueled by the aforementioned biosafety failures. The building of a Boston University BSL-4 laboratory has even been met with strong opposition as it is located in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood. Many are worried that with the ongoing reports of lab safety breaches, having a lab that handles deadly pathogens in the middle of a metropolitan area is inviting disaster.

To combat these fears, a national review of identified biosafety failures is underway to better understand what went wrong and how these can be avoided in the future. A NIH Blue Ribbon Panel is currently reviewing the 2014 NIH smallpox incident and is scheduled to present a final draft to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in April 2017.

Sadly, this is not the only ongoing biosafety investigation as the recent findings regarding a ricin mix-up at a FEMA counterterrorism training center are also being reviewed further.

Perhaps one of the most poignant points to take away from the recent CDC BSL-4 closure is that even industrialized and well-supported countries such as the United States can struggle with biosecurity and biosafety. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) have all looked to the role biosafety plays in global health. If major countries such as the United States struggle, where does that leave smaller or struggling countries in terms of securing their work with deadly pathogens? Biotechnology and advances in science bring work with dangerous pathogens into a new frontier, which have raised concerns regarding the continued presence of biosafety failures. With the pursuit of knowledge and advances in science, we must also support and encourage the strengthening of lab safety and biosecurity efforts.