Info Service on Health Issues (May 11/01) 4 May 2011
4 May 2011
Smallpox: Evidence Demonstrates Significant Risk of Lab Accidents
This informational briefing clearly demonstrates that the risk of accidents at high containment labs is significant, and that they occur with regularity, including at the most highly secured and recently constructed lab facilities.
With smallpox, the risk is proportional to the length of time that smallpox is stored and the number of activities that are conducted with the stocks. In other words, the longer the World Health Assembly delays destruction of the stocks, and the more research that is permitted, the higher the likelihood of an accident.
The upcoming World Health Assembly (16-24 May, 2011) will be discussing the issue of smallpox destruction once again. More information can be found at www.smallpoxbiosafety.org
With best wishes,
131 Jalan Macalister, 10400 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.biosafety-info.net and www.twnside.org.sg To subscribe to other TWN information
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131 Jalan Macalister,
Website: www.biosafety-info.net and www.twnside.org.sg
To subscribe to other TWN information
mailing lists: www.twnnews.net
Smallpox Infobrief #3
by Edward Hammond for the
and smallpoxbiosafety.org, May 2011
Third in a series of short informational briefings on
the issue of destruction of smallpox virus stocks
Demonstrates the Significant Risk
“The "control of nature"
is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of
biology and the convenience of man.” – Rachel Carson
Will a smallpox accident happen again? In general, viruses have a habit of evading the best efforts of humans to control them, which makes the WHO’s eradication of smallpox from the wild such a monumental achievement. Humans also make mistakes, and despite robust systems and procedures, accidents at high containment biological laboratories occur with regularity. With smallpox, the risk is proportional to the length of time that smallpox is stored and the number of activities that are conducted with the stocks. In other words, the longer that the World Health Assembly (WHA) delays destruction of the stocks, and the more research that is permitted, the higher the likelihood of an accident.
Accidents in high containment
labs are far more commonplace than most people realize. In many countries,
It is periodically reported to the WHA that WHO staff have inspected the facilities at the two Collaborating Centres and determined that they are adequate. It should be noted, however, that there are no international standards for high containment laboratory facilities established by the WHO or any other intergovernmental organization. Thus, there is no internationally agreed baseline against which these facilities can be judged. In addition, the WHO Biosafety Programme is quite small and unempowered, and is understandably preoccupied with laboratory conditions in countries with fewer resources than the US and Russia – for example, ensuring that labs do not become ground zero for outbreaks of Ebola, polio, or other diseases.
In 2004 at Vector, a researcher infected herself with Ebola virus and died as a result. In 2007 and 2008 at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), primary and backup power failed at high containment labs, indicating a loss of all-important negative air pressure (used to keep germs in). Making the accidents even more troubling, this serious design flaw in the electrical system was identified by one of CDC’s own building engineers during lab construction, but his repeated pleas that it be addressed were ignored by management.
The following charts provide
tabular information on historical smallpox accidents and recent laboratory
accidents (and other incidents) involving high containment labs. Generally
speaking, they can be divided into incidents involving human error
and equipment failure – or sometimes both. This information clearly
demonstrates that the risk of accidents at high containment labs is
significant, and that they occur with regularity, including at the
most highly secured and recently constructed lab facilities.
Historical Accidents Involving Smallpox Virus
Some Recent High Containment Laboratory Incidents
The reality of human and equipment failures at high containment labs, including labs with the latest technology and training, demonstrates the substantial risk of accidental (or even deliberate) release of smallpox virus. These stocks no longer serve any essential public health purpose, and the longer they are retained, the greater the likelihood of an outbreak.
 By “high containment”, we refer to labs classified as biosafety level three or four (BSL-3 or BSL-4), called P-3 or P-4 in WHO terminology. P-3 and P-4 labs share many safety features, the main difference being additional use of piped air supplies and full body “space suits” at P-4. These labs are designed to host research on disease agents that are easily transmissible and difficult or impossible to effectively treat. While there are no actual international standards that assign particular diseases to particular lab levels, it is widely agreed that smallpox research requires a P-4 facility.
J. 2001. Scourge. Grove Press.
A synopsis can be found at: Enemark C 2006. Preventing Accidental
Disease Outbreaks: Biosafety in
Young J 2008. CDC lab containing deadly virus suffers power outage.
Frase M 2009. The Price of Ike: UTMB in
Amerithrax Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel 2011. Report of the Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel. Research Strategies Network. See URL: https://www.researchstrategiesnetwork.org/pages/view/Amerithrax/
 Associated Press 2004. Scientist dies after lab accident involving Ebola virus. 24 May.
Kaiser J 2007. Pathogen Work at