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Unnatural Disasters: Why High-Containment Biolabs Need Better Oversight

Earlier this month, the U.S. found 60-year-old vials of smallpox in their storage facility in their lab in Bethesda, MD. After years of official reports stating that the only two places in the world where the smallpox virus was still alive were at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, GA, and in a Russian lab in Moscow. The news understandably caused a scandal. Moreover, it brought to the foreground the urgency of dealing with high-containment biological laboratories (HCBLs), both in terms of regulation and in accurately assessing their number.

The fact that old samples from the 1950s were found in storage – whether viable or not – does not constitute the health risk that is presented in some headlines. What it does highlight is the glaring lack of oversight in the U.S. concerning its HCBLs.

Biological laboratories are classified into four biosafety levels (BSL), depending on the virulence and ease of transmission of the pathogens they house. BSL-1 and 2 labs involve work with agents of minimal or moderate potential hazard to people and the environment. Both BSL-3 and 4 labs involve work with pathogens that are extremely virulent, transmitted by inhalation, and often fatal to humans; the difference being that there is no available treatment for level 4 pathogens.

Examples of level 3 pathogens are Anthrax, most forms of Avian Influenza, and Bubonic Plague. Some pathogens assigned to level 4 labs include Ebola, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, or Marburg Virus. Consequently, these labs require advanced facilities and safety standards.

The U.S. is generally regarded as a role model concerning biological security. It has the highest number of HCBLs in the world, stringent biosecurity standards, and strict protocols. Nevertheless, despite a seemingly detailed set of safety regulations, there are inexcusable and potentially disastrous gaps in oversight.

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office conducted a survey on U.S. biolabs and came to the alarming conclusion that the government did not know the exact number of BSL-3 labs in the U.S., nor was there a regulatory body responsible for oversight. This was partly due to the fact that not all labs are government-run or funded and that hospitals, universities, and corporations can also build BSL-3 labs. Therefore, not only is the U.S. scrambling to assess how many BSL-3 labs it has, but in light of finding the smallpox vials, it does not even know what is stored within its BSL-4 labs (which are directly overseen by the government).

The challenges associated with HCBLs only become evident when crises arise. Recently, two more incidents occurred concerning mismanagement of the H5N1 virus and Anthrax, where people were put at risk for possible exposure. The crisis was averted, but uncovered a largely mismanaged risk: the labs in question dealt with the problems on an institutional level, but there was no immediate communication to any overseeing body.

Human error is inherent in human activity. While many dangerous microbes do not spread easily in a normal laboratory setting, this is no reason to be lulled into a false sense of security. One has only to look at the 2007 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK to learn what a problem as minor as a slight leak in a drainage system can do. So far there have been numerous close calls, but fortunately no human epidemics.

A system of overseeing these labs must be put into effect immediately, both on national and international levels. Governments must know what labs are operating within their borders, what pathogens they contain, the work being conducted, the integrity of the structures, and the implementation of measures to reduce human error. An ideal scenario would be that international organizations take a more proactive role: working with all states willing to participate in order to standardize protocols for safety measures, levels of education needed to work in an HCBL, and building requirements. But since international organizations take a great deal of time, planning, and confidence-building when dealing with sensitive technologies, individual governments need to see these incidents as a warning and bring their protocols up to date.

The U.S. has been in the media lately not because they are the only ones making mistakes, but because they are open about them, have a rather good reporting system in place, and simply have more labs, thus increasing the probability of an issue. This should however not leave any state complacent or falsely reassured that this is a problem which does not concern everyone.

Pathogens do not recognize political boundaries, and all states housing such labs need to start paying more attention to the risks involved. Global deficiency in oversight of these labs requires urgent initiatives to be taken, as well as new institutional frameworks for communication and management. Any delay in tackling these issues might come at an unaffordable cost.