At biological research facilities across the United States and around the world, hundreds of safety breaches happen every year at labs experimenting with dangerous pathogens. Scientists and other lab workers are bitten by infected animals, stuck by contaminated needles and splashed with infectious fluids. They are put at risk of exposures when their protective gear malfunctions or critical building biosafety systems fail.
And, like all humans, the people working in laboratories make mistakes and they sometimes cut corners or ignore safety procedures – even when working with pathogens that have the potential to cause a global pandemic.
Yet the public rarely learns about these incidents, which tend to be shrouded in secrecy by labs and the government officials whose agencies often both fund and oversee the research. My new book, Pandora’s Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World at Risk, reveals how these and other kinds of lab accidents have happened with alarming frequency and how the lack of stringent, mandatory and transparent biosafety oversight and incident reporting is putting all of us at risk.
The book provides numerous case studies of near-miss incidents, infections and outbreaks caused by lax safety at some of the world’s top labs and shows the extraordinary efforts that have been taken to downplay the significance of safety breaches and keep accidents secret. This secrecy extends not just to the public at large, but also to the government agencies we all are trusting to head off disaster when things go wrong at these facilities.
For example, when a safety breach occurred in 2019 at a University of Wisconsin-Madison lab experimenting with a dangerous and highly controversial lab-created H5N1 avian influenza virus, the university never told the public – or local and state public health officials. The university made the decision to end the quarantine of a potentially exposed lab worker without consulting Wisconsin public health officials, despite representations going back years that these health departments would be notified of “any potential exposure” during this kind of especially risky research.
In another incident, a pipe burst on a lab waste-holding tank in 2018 at a US army research facility at Fort Detrick, near Washington DC. Workers initially dismissed that any safety breach had occurred. Then army officials belatedly issued public statements that left out key details and created the misleading impression that no dangerous pathogens could have left the base. Yet my reporting has uncovered government documents and even a photo showing the giant tank spewing an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of unsterilized lab wastewater near an open storm drain that feeds into a popular public waterway.
It’s been a shocking revelation for people living in Frederick, Maryland, including some who served on a citizen committee about the public safety of Fort Detrick’s labs. “We didn’t know about the extent of the wastewater breach … or the absolute inadequate paucity of environmental sampling that underlied the army’s assessment of ‘no risk to the community’ until Alison Young’s [reporting],” the committee’s former chairman, Matt Sharkey, a biologist, recently told the local newspaper.
Most of the time when accidents happen, labs get lucky and nobody is sickened. Many pathogens don’t spread easily from person to person, and it’s the people working inside lab facilities who are at greatest risk of infection. But some viruses and bacteria are capable of causing outbreaks if they are unleashed into the surrounding community and beyond. Of greatest concern are pathogens that have the potential to cause pandemics, especially certain types of influenza viruses and coronaviruses.
When will our luck run out?
Regulation of lab safety in the US and around the world is fragmented and often relies heavily on scientific institutions policing themselves. There is no comprehensive tracking of which labs hold collections of the most dangerous viruses, bacteria and toxins. And nobody appears to know how many facilities are manipulating pathogens in ways that make them more dangerous than what is found in nature, a category of controversial and risky experiments sometimes referred to as gain of function research of concern.
The World Health Organization has “no access to such information on who’s doing what in terms of gain of function (GOF) or similar research work that comes with an elevated risk”, Kazunobu Kojima, a WHO biosafety expert, told me.
Concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic may have been caused by a research-related accident in Wuhan, China, have raised public awareness in recent years of how lax safety in biological research can pose a public health threat. Yet this is not a new issue.
For decades, as high-containment biolabs have proliferated around the world, policy makers and scientific experts have discussed with concern the increasing risk of a lab accident causing a catastrophic outbreak. Before Covid and before Washington politics became so toxic, Republicans and Democrats in Congress held multiple bipartisan hearings examining the threats posed by laboratory accidents and they jointly requested studies about biosafety and biosecurity issues from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“Many experts agree that as the number of high-containment laboratories has increased … the overall risk of an accidental or deliberate release of a dangerous pathogen will also increase,” the GAO’s Nancy Kingsbury testified at a hearing in 2014, noting that the GAO had been issuing findings and recommendations about fragmented lab oversight since 2009.
Yet despite the passage of so many years, little has been done to fix the current patchwork oversight that often shields the safety failings of labs – and the government agencies that oversee them – from public accountability. And now, the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred a new global biolab building boom, with even more labs planned or under construction – often in countries where a recent report found government stability and national biorisk management was lacking.
Because of China’s refusal to allow an independent forensic investigation into the natural or lab origin of Covid-19, we may never know the source of the coronavirus that has killed millions of people around the world. But it’s not too late to take actions to address gaps in biosafety and biosecurity oversight and transparency in the US and around the world – and reduce the potential for a lab accident causing a future pandemic.
Alison Young is an investigative reporter and the Curtis B Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Her book Pandora’s Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World at Risk was released on 25 April
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