Reporting All Biosafety Errors Could Improve Labs Worldwide – and Increase Public Trust in Biological Research

Here in the U.S., several well-documented laboratory errors have resulted in potential exposures, including the 2014 unintentional release of potentially viable anthrax bacteria, the 2014 potential exposure of a laboratory technician to Ebola virus and the 2015 discovery of improperly inactivated anthrax bacteria that was shipped around the globe. In each case, medical care was provided and no one became ill.

Biological Incident Reporting
In the U.S., a standardized system to report all biological incidents and potential exposures does not exist.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has requirements for reporting any significant problems, accidents and illnesses involving experiments with altered genetic material. If a research institution receives U.S. government funding, failure to comply with NIH rules can result in a loss of this funding, no matter where in the world the lab is located.

But private, corporate or DIY biology laboratories operate with even less government oversight and fewer reporting requirements – though many have adopted their own biosafety practices and follow local requirements and best management practices.

Outside the U.S., the robustness of biosafety and biosecurity oversight varies significantly from country to country.

Sharing Information
Although reporting to the U.S. government is required in certain circumstances, the information contained in the reports may never reach the public.

Some institutions openly publish information about their incidents, while others keep that data private. Reasons may include concerns about reputation, protection of personal health information or even sensationalism in the media. Some fear reprisal from a disgruntled employee, a competitor or even a nation-state. Others are concerned about the spread of misinformation by individuals who fear biological labs or those who seek to end human genetic engineering research or ban animal experiments.

Even with these concerns, we believe a more transparent and comprehensive system of reporting biological incidents to a neutral third party would help reduce the number of laboratory incidents – and could improve public trust in the scientific enterprise. If this type of system had been in place prior to COVID-19, more data would presumably have been available to help evaluate the Wuhan laboratory leak hypothesis and cut down on speculation.

In the U.S., a possible way to do this is to expand the American Biological Safety Association’s Laboratory Acquired Infection database. Currently, it contains incident data only from published research papers. But it could be broadened to include all kinds of incident data. In our opinion, an international version of such a reporting system would also help reduce the number and severity of laboratory incidents, both locally and worldwide. The more information available about the root cause of incidents, the more it could be used to help improve training, procedures and controls – and prevent future problems. It would also suggest how safety systems break down and what systems might be at risk.

Biosafety and biosecurity professionals have been discussing this topic for a long time, including at a U.S. Trans-Federal Task Force on Optimizing Biosafety and Biocontainment and by a Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel. But to make a centralized reporting system a reality, key players will need to commit and act. They include governments, international agencies, industry partners and the scientific community.

David Gillum is Executive Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Chief Safety Officer, Arizona State University. Kathleen Vogel is Interim Director and Professor of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University. Rebecca Moritz is Biosafety Director and Responsible Official, Colorado State University. This articleis published courtesy of The Conversation.