Can rigorous protocols keep the BU biolab safe?
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.
: News Features
, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Klare Allen, Texas A&M University