A recent lab mishap has raised questions about the overall culture of lab safety in so-called high security labs.
Five rhesus macaque monkeys at the Tulane National Primate Research Center near New Orleans have displayed possible infection from Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria after it was somehow released from the research facility. A worker at the research center is also believed to have been exposed to the bioterror bacteria, according to USA Today.
Federal and state authorities are looking into how the deadly bacteria escaped the secure biosafety level 3 lab and infected animals that were not a part of the ongoing research. The CDC has denied any danger to public health and has halted the research with the bacteria.
Biosafety level 3 labs are advanced labs where research involving ‘select agents’ is carried out with the most stringent security to ensure pathogens don’t leave the lab or infect the lab workers. Yet, accidental releases like this one are becoming common in such facilities.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, some 395 “potential release events” of “select agents” in U.S. government laboratories have been reported between 2003 and 2009.
Not long ago, 80 workers were exposed to life threatening Anthrax at the Atlanta CDC lab when scientists sent samples of Bacillus Anthracis that was believed to be inactive to a lower security lab.
A similar accident took place when CDC scientists shipped highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu thinking it was a relatively harmless strain of bird flu.
Lax attitude in ensuring tighter safety measures inside labs
In light of growing concerns over safety in biolabs, the European committee for Standardization (CEN) adopted the CEN Workshop Agreement (CWA) 15793 in 2008—the first internationally accepted framework to improve safety in facilities handling deadly pathogens.
However, the implementation of this framework is another story altogether. Despite World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations that organizations adopt CWA 15793, the CDC has failed to do so, citing lack of resources as a reason.
The CDC, however, has its own safety guidelines for laboratories handling deadly pathogens, which were released following the accidental release of Anthrax in the Atlanta lab.
Marc Lipsitch, professor of Public Health at Harvard, writes in the New York Times that any experiments with contagious, virulent flu strains carry the risk of spreading the disease. He also asserts that despite the researchers’ belief that a lab is very safe, the risk cannot be brought down to zero.