March 14, 2024

Report Addresses Biosafety of Pathogen Research

A new report released by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists offers recommendations for ensuring that research on viral pathogens with the potential to cause a pandemic is conducted safely and responsibly. The report also identifies a need for research on the causes of laboratory mishaps such as splashes and spills of biological materials and the kinds of personal protective equipment necessary to protect researchers in various laboratory environments.

The report acknowledges the importance of research on dangerous pathogens and recommends that research on newly discovered pathogens, whose pandemic potential is unknown, be conducted with stringent precautions. Research that enhances the pandemic potential of a pathogen carries exceptionally high risks, will never be risk-free, and warrants extra precautions, the report states.

The accidental infection of researchers in laboratories happens more often than is generally recognized. More than 2,300 instances of lab-acquired infections occurred between 1979 and 2015, an average of over 100 per year, including smallpox infections after that virus was eliminated in nature and SARS-CoV-1 infections after the SARS epidemic had been largely contained.

In calling for additional data on lab accidents, the report points to the benefits of recent research showing the frequency of spills that result from the handling of microcentrifuge tubes, in which biological materials are typically stored. This research has prompted labs to investigate other types of storage methods.

According to the report, research is needed to confirm whether the improper doffing of protective gloves is responsible for infections and contamination in labs and what types of respiratory protection are needed in different lab settings.

The report, “A Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research,” is available online.