A couple of weeks ago, there was a minor outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in England that was traced to a local biological laboratory that was working with the virus to make vaccines.

Few people realize that the last death from small pox was not the natural case in Somalia in 1977 but a woman who worked in a biological lab who contracted the disease in England in 1979. Similarly, a virus similar to Ebola, the Marburg virus, was named after that German city after an epidemic among lab workers, and the last episode being in 2004.

But a Congressional hearing last week brought to light that there had been numerous breeches at various biological laboratories in the US, including some that are not reported to authorities.

This is really scary. I mean, Americans expect that labs to do their thing without the risk that Bossie the cow might come down with Foot and Mouth disease because your farm is downwind from a lab, or that your doctor or nurse might catch some exotic disease because they treated a laboratory photographer for a rash that turned out to be smallpox or Marburg virus.

The episode that inspired the hearing was a lab error at Texas A&M University that resulted in one person being infected with Brucellosis, a treatable disease that infects both humans and animals.
The panel was told that there is no one agency that regulates all the laboratories, some of which work with very dangerous diseases, but others (lower level) labs work with agents in order to make vaccines, or work with newer infectious diseases  such as SARS.

It is these lower level labs that are proliferating all over the world, as many countries decide to make their own vaccines.  Although the scientists who run these programs would be well trained professionals, there is a possibility that carelessness among support staff  in third world countries could increase risk of accidental release.
Even laboratories in the US have had problems in keeping the dangerous organisms isolated.

American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing steadily as more labs across the country are approved to do the work.

(NOTE: biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs, which study deadly pathogens for which there is no treatment, as well as biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, which handle less risky bugs.)

The conclusion of scientist talking to Congress is that we need these laboratories to investigate the organisms so that drugs to treat them and vaccines to prevent them can be done.

But a stricter oversight is needed, especially with the increased number of laboratories in recent years.

As the Tularemia case in Texas and the Foot and Mouth disease in England shows, such laboratories need to be better supervised to prevent a major epidemic from such sources.

Who will be authorized to monitor overseas laboratories however has not been determined.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. 

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