After three safety breaches involving pathogens in federal government laboratories, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) has requested a “safety stand-down,” and NIH has designated September as National Biosafety Stewardship Month.
Both efforts encourage government labs and nongovernment labs that receive federal funding to review practices and improve inventories of infectious agents and toxins.
Earlier this year, a sample of low-pathogenic avian influenza virus was unintentionally contaminated with a far more pathogenic H5N1 strain in a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) lab then shipped to a Department of Agriculture facility.
Later, CDC scientists failed to properly inactivate anthrax bacteria samples before moving the material to labs operating with fewer safety precautions.
And then in July, vials of smallpox and other pathogens were discovered in an unsecured FDA laboratory on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.
Although no one became ill as a result of the incidents, they’ve been a wake-up call for federal lab safety programs. OSTP, which has no regulatory authority over lab safety, is urging labs to “review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols, as well as to develop and implement plans for sustained inventory monitoring,” according to an Aug. 18 memo that sets a 30-day deadline. OSTP also wants facilities to conduct an immediate sweep for biological agents and toxins that pose a severe threat to human, animal, or plant health, or to animal or plant products.
Boston University is one institution subject to the directives. The school has an information management system in place to track which labs are using infectious agents and toxins, says Wei He, a staff member in the university’s Office of Research Compliance. “We’ll be getting the message out to principal investigators” to have them review their protocols and inventory, He says.