BiolabsThe number of labs handling deadly germs grows, and so do calls for regulating lab safety

Published 22 July 2014

The number of labs handling dangerous pathogens continues to grow, and so does the number of accidents involving dangerous pathogens. The number of reported accidents involving dangerous microbes grew rapidly from just sixteen in 2004 to 128 in 2008, and 269 in 2010, the last year reported.Experts note that currently there is no single federal agency responsible for assessing overall laboratory needs — instead, departments and agencies only assess the needs for labs relative to their respective missions.

The recent accounts of mishaps at federal laboratories involving anthrax, bird flu, and smallpox have led many to question the government’s handling of dangerous pathogens. The number of incidents which have occurred over the past few years at academic, commercial, and government labs which operate without clear standards or oversight continues to increase.

The 2001 anthrax scare generated an increase in “high-level containment” labs designed to work with dangerous microbes. In 2013 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that no single federal agency was responsible for assessing overall laboratory needs — instead, departments and agencies only assessed the needs for labs relative to their respective missions. “We therefore determined that a national strategy for oversight, including periodic assessments of the nation’s need for these laboratories, was called for,” the reported stated.

The GAO warned Congress last week, as it did in its 2013 report, that approving more high-level containment labs will increase the risk of laboratory accidents, accidents which could pose risks to human, animal, and plant life, especially in a field in which oversight is “fragmented and largely self-policing.”

According to a 2012 article by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of reported accidents involving dangerous microbes grew rapidly from just sixteen in 2004 to 128 in 2008, and 269 in 2010, the last year reported. Majority of the accidents involved leaks, spills, or other releases of infectious materials inside laboratories. The New York Times cites a 2008 DHS report that details various high-level lab incidents, including one in which workers at different sites accidentally stabbed themselves with needles contaminated with anthrax or West Nile virus. Of all the lab accidents reported to federal authorities from 2004 to 2010, however, only eleven lab workers have become ill from exposures, and none died or infected other people, the CDC states.

The Homeland Security News Wire reported on Monday that Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist and laboratory director from Rutgers University, said he lost confidence in the safety of many federal labs. Now, Nancy Kingsbury, the managing director of applied research and methods at the GAO, who testified last week before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, claims that the six or seven government agencies involved with the increase of high-level containment labs across the country had no overall strategic plan. Both Kingsbury and Ebright, who also testified before Congress last week, are calling for an independent federal agency to regulate labs working with “select agents,” or microbes that can cause serious illness in people, animals, or crops. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC has also shown support for such an agency.

Several researchers working with select agents have rejected calls for regulating the work at laboratories, arguing such regulation may limit scientific progress. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin scientist who used genetic engineering to create a bird-flu virus similar to the one that killed millions of people in 1918, said that the accidents at the CDC were “very troubling.” He said, however, that certain studies have to continue because “these pathogens exist in nature, and they could be used as bioweapons,” adding that at his lab, “we continue to take every precaution to ensure risks are as low as possible.”

Ron Fouchier, a virologist who conducts research on flu viruses at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, said the recent lab incidents should not reflect on work by other researchers. “Just because there were incidents in one institute does not mean others have the same problem,” he explained, adding that the fact that no one had contracted anthrax from the incident at the CDC proved appropriate safety measures were in place. “One cannot bring down the number of incidents in labs to zero, but one can reduce the risks to negligible,” he told the Times. On the forgotten vials of smallpox found at the National Institutes of Health, “Box found,” he wrote. “Contained. Destroyed. Done.”