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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

Lab incidents divide scientists on research on potential pandemic agents

A series of biosafety breaches in federal labs working with highly pathogenic agents has created a rift in the research community, with some calling for a moratorium until safety can be assured and other scientists arguing that this important work should continue with appropriate precautions to prepare for pandemics and bioterror attacks.

Distinguished scientists and researchers are divided on the issue, as evidenced by the signatures on position states by the opposing groups, one calling itself the Cambridge group and the other Scientists for Science.

The Cambridge group said recent laboratory breaches with potential pandemic agents indicate an urgent need for a thorough reassessment of biosafety. “Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks,” the group said in a position statement. “An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control. Historically, new strains of influenza, once they establish transmission in the human population, have infected a quarter or more of the world’s population within two years.”

Experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches, the Cambridge group recommended. They also noted that the recently reported incidents did not occur in isolation, warning that frequent lab breaches are an ongoing problem.

“Such incidents have been accelerating and have been occurring on average over twice a week with regulated pathogens in academic and government labs across the country,” the Cambridge group stated.

Scientists for Science issued a countering statement expressing confidence that biomedical research on potentially dangerous pathogens can be performed safely and is essential for a full understanding of microbial disease pathogenesis, prevention and treatment.

“The results of such research are often unanticipated and accrue over time; therefore, risk-benefit analyses are difficult to assess accurately,” the pro-research group said. “If we expect to continue to improve our understanding of how microorganisms cause disease we cannot avoid working with potentially dangerous pathogens."

In recognition of this need, significant resources have been invested globally to build and operate BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities, and to mitigate risk in a variety of ways, involving regulatory requirements, facility engineering and training, the group reported.

"Ensuring that these facilities operate safely and are staffed effectively so that risk is minimized is our most important line of defense, as opposed to limiting the types of experiments that are done,” Scientists for Science concluded.

For more on this story see the September 2014 issue of Hospital Infection Control & Prevention