Infectious nexus?

Can rigorous protocols keep the BU biolab safe?
By ADAM REILLY  |  April 2, 2008


Biolab follies: How did BU's research facility go from slam dunk to almost sunk? By Adam Reilly.
The big worry over the BU biolab is that a nasty biological agent — Ebola, Marburg, pneumonic plague — could escape and devastate the South End, Roxbury, and beyond. Supporters of the project note that stringent regulations prevent this from happening. “In more than 90 combined years . . . of operation,” the biolab’s Q-and-A Web page states, “there has never been a community incident or environmental release at a BSL-4 laboratory in North America.” According to the latest edition of Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (US Government Printing Office, 2007), BSL-4 protocol works in the following manner:

“While the laboratory is operational, personnel must enter and exit the laboratory through the clothing change and shower rooms, except during emergencies. All personal clothing must be removed in the outer clothing-change room. Laboratory clothing, including undergarments, pants, shirts, jumpsuits, shoes, and gloves, must be used by all personnel entering the laboratory. All persons leaving the laboratory must take a personal body shower. Used laboratory clothing must not be removed from the inner change room through the personal shower. These items must be treated as contaminated materials and decontaminated before laundering. . . .

“Laboratory personnel and support staff must be provided appropriate occupational medical service, including medical surveillance and available immunizations for agents handled or potentially present in the laboratory. A system must be established for reporting and documenting laboratory accidents, exposures, employee absenteeism, and for the medical surveillance of potential laboratory-associated illnesses. An essential adjunct to such an occupational medical services system is the availability of a facility for the isolation and medical care of personnel with potential or known laboratory-acquired infections.”

Of course, as anyone who has seen Silkwood or read The Hot Zone knows, protocols only work if people implement them — and we humans are a fallible lot. “I don’t have faith in the Man, because we’re not perfect,” says anti-biolab activist Klare Allen. “If so, we’d have that little halo, walking on water, doing that kind of stuff. That’s something we all need to think about.”

The 2004 tularemia outbreak at a BU lab is one example of our fallibility. Here’s another: in September 2007, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shut down biodefense research at Texas A&M University after a dozen major violations of protocol were discovered there, including unapproved experiments, missing vials of the infectious bacteria Brucella, and shoddy oversight of visits to, and departures from, the lab. The Dallas Morning News also reported that a mouse infected with Q fever — which can spread from animals to humans, and is classed as a potential terrorist threat by the CDC — was reported missing at the lab. It’s still on the lam.

Related: Live election coverage, Editor's note, August 31, 2007, Life begins at 40, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Klare Allen, Texas A&M University
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   BULLY FOR BU!  |  March 12, 2010
    After six years at the Phoenix , I recently got my first pre-emptive libel threat. It came, most unexpectedly, from an investigative reporter. And beyond the fact that this struck me as a blatant attempt at intimidation, it demonstrated how tricky journalism's new, collaboration-driven future could be.
  •   STOP THE QUINN-SANITY!  |  March 03, 2010
    The year is still young, but when the time comes to look back at 2010's media lowlights, the embarrassing demise of Sally Quinn's Washington Post column, "The Party," will almost certainly rank near the top of the list.
  •   RIGHT CLICK  |  February 19, 2010
    Back in February 2007, a few months after a political neophyte named Deval Patrick cruised to victory in the Massachusetts governor's race with help from a political blog named Blue Mass Group (BMG) — which whipped up pro-Patrick sentiment while aggressively rebutting the governor-to-be's critics — I sized up a recent conservative entry in the local blogosphere.
  •   RANSOM NOTES  |  February 12, 2010
    While reporting from Afghanistan two years ago, David Rohde became, for the second time in his career, an unwilling participant rather than an observer. On October 29, 1995, Rohde had been arrested by Bosnian Serbs. And then in November 2008, Rohde and two Afghan colleagues were en route to an interview with a Taliban commander when they were kidnapped.
  •   POOR RECEPTION  |  February 08, 2010
    The right loves to rant against the "liberal-media elite," but there's one key media sector where the conservative id reigns supreme: talk radio.

 See all articles by: ADAM REILLY