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Safety: Lab Leaders Trained To Secure Deadly Bioagents

by Glenn Hess
October 11, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 41

A group of scientists from Sandia National Laboratories is training laboratory leaders from around the world to secure deadly biological agents from accidental or deliberate misuse.

Working in conjunction with the World Health Organization, the team developed the Biorisk Management Advanced Trainer Course. The initiative is part of Sandia’s efforts to ensure that potentially dangerous agents are not accidentally released or do not fall into the wrong hands, says Reynolds M. Salerno, founder of Sandia’s International Biological Threat Reduction program.

“I’m confident that courses such as these, combined with other outreach efforts we already offer, will continue to bolster Safety and security in labs worldwide,” Salerno says.

Since April, the Sandia team has conducted training sessions in Amman, Jordan, and Quito, Ecuador. It will conduct additional courses in Stockholm; the Maldives; Nairobi, Kenya; and possibly Bangkok, by December.

“This program engages scientists worldwide who handle dangerous pathogens and helps them meet best practices of Safety and security,” says Jennifer Gaudioso, the program’s acting manager. “To meet that objective, we also work on disease surveillance, molecular diagnostics, and various analytical work for the U.S. government to inform policy.”

The need for training became apparent after the 2001 anthrax attacks on the U.S., which followed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. But more than a year before the anthrax attacks, Sandia scientists had formed a small team to look at ways to prevent and contain such threats.

“In the 10 years since Sandia’s team was founded, laboratory biosafety and biosecurity has become a particularly vibrant field,” Salerno says. The international community recognizes that safeguarding work with high-risk pathogens is critical to both public health and international security, he adds.

In its annual report on worldwide terrorism, the State Department says that developing a bioterrorism capability presents scientific and operational challenges, but the necessary technical capabilities are not beyond the expertise of motivated scientists with university-level training.

“The materials required to produce a biological weapon are available in laboratories worldwide, and many threat agents could be isolated from nature, though doing so may pose a challenge,” the report says.

International laboratories are often not safeguarded and secured up to preferred U.S. standards, making dual-use equipment and potentially dangerous pathogens possibly more accessible, according to department analysts.

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of labs worldwide work with high-risk pathogens, Salerno says. “Lab leaders are increasingly committed to taking the proper precautions to prevent those agents from accidentally harming lab workers, being released into the environment, or being misused by someone who intends to cause harm.”



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