#13 – Accidents Reveal US Biolab Vulnerabilities

by Shealeigh

The Intercept’s Mara Hvistendahl uncovered hundreds of undisclosed accidents at biolabs in the United States. Her November 1, 2022, article spotlighted the case of a graduate student at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, who contracted the debilitating Chikungunya virus, which is responsible for epidemics in both the Caribbean and Africa.

According to Hvistendahl, the graduate student contracted the virus when her syringe slipped and pricked through her gloves. Seeing no blood, she did not initially report the incident. She became ill several days later and tested positive for Chikungunya. Because she did not report the incident immediately, no safety measures were put into place following her possible exposure. Her supervisor did ultimately report the accident to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “but until now, the event has remained out of public view. So have hundreds of other incidents in US labs,” Hvistendahl reported.

Accidents like these are not uncommon in US biolabs. The Intercept analyzed more than 5,500 pages of documents from the NIH to reveal a range of issues. Some included “malfunctioning equipment, spilled beakers, transgenic rodents running down the hall, [and] a sedated macaque coming back to life and biting a researcher.” Most of the incidents involved minor pathogens or did not lead to infection or illness. However, some accidents did result in illness, such as the Chikungunya incident.

The public often assumes that biolab accidents in the US are rare, but the NIH documents obtained by the Intercept prove otherwise. Hvistendahl explained that “the United States has a patchwork of regulations and guidelines covering lab biosafety. Safety training can vary widely from one institution to the next. Experiments involving specific pathogens and some research funded by the US government are subject to oversight, but critics liken other areas to ‘the Wild West,’” Hvistendahl reported, “Unless they work with the most dangerous pathogens, biolabs do not have to register with the US government. As a result, there is little visibility into the biosafety of experiments carried out by private companies or foundations.”

In the wake of the claim that the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a lab leak, the corporate media have investigated biolab threats, primarily in other countries [Note: See, for example, “Infections Caught in Laboratories Are Surprisingly Common,” Economist, April 24, 2021; Jon Gertner, “You Should Be Afraid of the Next ‘Lab Leak’,” New York Times Magazine, November 23, 2021; Tara Law, “Lab Leaks Are a Small But Real Risk in Ukraine. Russian Disinformation Is the True Threat,” Time, March 29, 2022]. An April 2023 article in the Washington Post highlighting Chinese biolabs acknowledged, “Lab accidents happen everywhere, including in the United States, where illnesses and deaths caused by accidental infections have occurred, especially before the adoption of modern safety standards.” In May 2023, the New York Times featured an opinion article about a new book on biolab threats by investigative journalist Alison Young, who penned an editorial for the Guardian. However, corporate coverage has primarily focused on global threats and downplayed the vulnerabilities of biolabs in the United States.

Mara Hvistendahl, “Bent Over in Pain,” The Intercept, November 1, 2022.

Student Researcher: Reagan Haynie (Loyola Marymount University)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)