Published online 4 April 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news070402-4

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Biosafety labs urged to report accidents and near misses

US think tank proposes mandatory but anonymous reporting.

Exposed but not infected? Some researchers estimate that 'near miss' accidents happen dozens of times a year in the United States.Exposed but not infected? Some researchers estimate that 'near miss' accidents happen dozens of times a year in the United States.Getty

A prominent US biosecurity think tank has called for labs that deal with high-risk biological agents to be far more thorough in reporting their accidents and near-misses.

The report1, released today by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, calls for a federal system to analyse mistakes in Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 laboratories to prevent future accidents. To encourage reporting, they suggest the system could keep secret the names of individuals and perhaps institutions involved in incidents.

"The problem is that accidents aren't reported," says Gigi Kwik Gronvall, lead author of the report. "People recognize the need, so let's do it."

Only "a handful" of lab-acquired infections have ever been reported in BSL-4 labs worldwide, Gronvall says; and there have been none in the United States. But no statistics have been compiled on how many accidents occur in US labs operating at the three lower containment levels, BSL-1 through BSL-3.

In addition, several biosafety experts, including Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, New Jersey, say that near-miss lab accidents occur frequently but are never reported. That could include, for example, a researcher being exposed to bacteria but not getting infected. Ebright estimates there are "dozens of such incidents in the United States per year".

Most US biological labs have a limited requirement to report incidents to the federal government. Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have to report accidents to the NIH, although there is no penalty if they neglect to do so. Incidents involving recombinant DNA must be reported if occurring at an institution that receives any NIH funding. And exposure to pathogens on the US 'select agent' list, such as anthrax, need to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the Department of Agriculture.

More could be done, say the authors of the report. In other, better-regulated systems, such as the US army's biological research programme, strict reporting of all incidents helps to keep accidents at bay, they note. Ken Proper, who manages the Army's biological-mishap reporting system, notes that their system led to a redesign of rodent cages that reduced the number of needle pricks in researchers.

The report additionally calls for better biosafety training, more safety-related interactions between labs, and better communication with the public.

A spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services, the parent organization of both the NIH and CDC, says they cannot yet comment on the report as they have not had a chance to read it thoroughly.

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Gronvall says she wants to avoid blaming biologists or the government for not having yet introduced a strict reporting scheme. But other experts are less charitable. Ebright calls the lack of mandatory reporting "unwise, inappropriate, and a serious issue that needs to be addressed". Ed Hammond, US director of the Sunshine Project, a biotechnology watchdog group, calls it a "scandal" and an "insult" to the public.

Hammond says that a reporting scheme is sorely needed. But he vigorously criticizes the institutional anonymity suggested in the report, saying it would "permit labs to escape public accountability for accidents, keep communities in the dark about dangers in their midst, and impede learning from mistakes to prevent recurrences."

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