Lab leaks: a history of biosafety accidents

We look at the incidents when dangerous diseases have escaped the lab into the wide world...
19 October 2021

Interview with 

Alison Young, University of Missouri




High-security labs use equipment and procedures to protect themselves and the wider public. But of course, anywhere there are humans, there’s the possibility of human error, and laboratories are no exception. Alison Young is an investigative reporter and Professor of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She specialises in mistakes and errors in biosafety. Sally Le Page asked her what can go wrong in these high-security labs...

Alison - There are a variety of things that can go wrong and that have gone wrong. I have spent most of the last more than ten years reporting on accidents that have occurred at some of the world's most elite labs, places like the National Institutes of Health. Obviously viruses and bacteria don't just walk out on their own. The ways that they can potentially get out usually has to do with human error or riding out on human beings.

Alison - And we had a situation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where a scientist at the CDC in 2014 was preparing a specimen of what was a benign strain of avian influenza to send for research at another government lab. The problem was that they had used some bad safety practices and prepared the specimen at the same time they were also preparing specimens with a very deadly strain of avian influenza. So they send off the specimen to this other lab and the scientists who are working with it, didn't realize that they were working with this deadly strain of influenza until the chickens in their research study all unexpectedly died. In that case, we got lucky. Those researchers just happened to, as a matter of course, be working with a higher level of protection, but they were not required to for the kind of experiment that they were doing.

Sally - Is it possible to do this research in a way that is 100% safe?

Alison - Everything is subject to human error. These labs are designed with redundant safety systems, but at the end of the day, it's human beings that are operating within them. In the United States, there are only a subset of laboratories that come under actual true regulation. Every year, just in that subset of labs, there are a hundred serious incidents every single year where a person working in a lab has been exposed to some sort of select agent pathogen.

Sally - So that doesn't mean that there are a hundred instances where the virus or bacteria has escaped. It's where there is a chance that the researcher has been infected.

Alison - Exactly. I mean, the good news in all of this is the number of those incidents where the person who is working with the pathogen actually becomes infected is relatively low. And even lower still are the number of times where a laboratory accident has resulted in infections out in the wider community, but those kinds of incidents have happened.

Sally - Can you give us an example?

Alison - Sure. I mean, there are three really prominent examples of this. In the UK in Pirbright in 2007, at a large animal research and vaccine manufacturing facility, they had what was literally a lab leak, where they were working with Foot and Mouth Disease virus to make vaccines. And they had leaky drainage pipes that had corroded and not been maintained. And ultimately there were herds of cattle that were on nearby farms that became infected, and there were 600 cattle that needed to be culled in that case.

Sally - Animal and human pathogens and diseases have their different categorisations, but Foot and Mouth is at the top of the animal diseases. It only is worked on in the most secure facilities and this is happening in the UK, and yet somehow it still managed to escape.

Alison - It really is one of the ones that is held out there as being an example of what can happen, even when you know you were working with one of the most dangerous pathogens out there. We also had, you know, obviously the pandemic has everyone thinking about SARS coronaviruses and when the first SARS virus emerged, after that epidemic was contained in the summer of 2003, there was a series of lab accidents where workers who were unaware that they'd become exposed in their laboratories, went out and were out and about in public until they developed symptoms. So they didn't even know a lab accident had occurred until after they became ill.

Alison - And then lastly, we'll also say that, when we think about the larger consequences of a lab accident on the world, there was sort of a global epidemic that is believed to have involved a non-natural occurrence of a virus. And so this is in 1977, the re-emergence of an H1N1 influenza virus. This was a strain that when scientists studied, it looked like it had been frozen in time from 1950, the last time that it had been seen. And it's widely viewed that it was either some form of a laboratory accident or some sort of a vaccine trial that had a mishap. So these kinds of things where the pathogen gets out and affects the wider community are relatively rare, but they have happened. And the concern that is being expressed when it comes to gain of function research by scientists and some members of the public is that they may be rare, but there's the potential for devastating consequences.

Sally - If human error is inevitable and there is always going to be the chance, however small, that there could be an accident, in your view, having reported on this for the last few decades, do you think that all of this research should just be stopped? Is it just too hot to handle? Too risky to do anything with?

Alison - As a journalist, it's not my place to say either way, but that is part of the important debate that is playing out right now. There are those who believe that this research is vitally important to developing various treatments and understanding where the next pandemic may come from. But there are those who believe that the risks are not worth whatever the benefits are. And I think that it's an important debate that all of us need to be paying attention to.

Sally - And who does get to decide on whether the risks of this research outweigh the benefits.

Alison - That is an outstanding question. And that's one of the things that's out there for debate. When it comes to very risky research, there are some mechanisms in place for some layers of approval, but questions have been raised in the United States about whether those structures are adequate to ensure sufficient oversight.


Add a comment