Public health labs oppose field WMD testing

Published 2 May 2007

Without national performance standards and field validation, Association of Public Health Laboratories says the risks of false positives and false negatives are too high

The past five years have seen a rush on biological and chemical field detection kits, and our longtime readers know such devices come in all shapes and sizes, each with its own particular technological accomplishment. (As with everything in life, speed, accuracy, breadth, and size are the determining factors.) Nevertheless, many in the public health community, including HHS, are wary of field testing for biological agents, and now the Association of Public Health Laboratories has come out “strongly opposed” to the practice for both biological and chemical agents. The reason: “The absence of performance standardization, field validation, and the participation by certified individuals trained in the application of such kits and devices.”

The obvious worries are false positives and false negatives — “such data can be dangerously misleading.” But the issue is even more subtle. If incorrect or inconsistant procedurres are followed, evidentiary sample material may be damaged or destroyed, thereby frustrating scientific and criminal inquiries. For this reason, a recent AHPL position statement suggests that “DHS draft guidelines for performance and validation of all commercially developed screening kits and devices designed for use in the field by first responders to detect hazardous biological and chemical agents.” The association further recommended that DHS collaborate with the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) reference laboratories during the validation process; and that DHS develop and implement a training, certification, and proficiency testing program for first responders.