Recent reports from the Intercept highlight hundreds of undisclosed biolab accidents that have gone unreported by major news outlets. A November 1, 2022 article, titled “Bent Over in Pain,” by Mara Hvistendahl spotlights a graduate student who in 2016 contracted the debilitating Chikungunya virus, a recombinant mosquito-borne pathogen which is responsible for epidemics in both the Caribbean and Africa.
According to Hvistendahl’s report, the graduate student was alone in a biosafety lab when her syringe filled with Chikungunya antibodies slipped from the mouse she was testing and pricked through her gloves. The grad student did not feel the prick or see an incision site, so she left without reporting the incident. A few days following the incident, she came down with a fever, body aches, convulsions and chills. The next day, her skin was covered in blotchy spots. Once the spots became worse, she went to the emergency room and was observed and tested by doctors. Her blood results came back positive for Chikungunya. Because she did not report the incident until after she tested positive, no safety measures were put into place following her possible exposure to the virus.
According to research by the Intercept, accidents like these are not uncommon in our country’s biolabs. The outlet’s investigation of more than 5,500 pages of NIH documents revealed a range of issues in highly controlled biolabs. Some issues included, “malfunctioning equipment, spilled beakers, transgenic rodents running down the hall, a sedated macaque coming back to life and biting a researcher hard enough to lacerate their hand.” Additionally, most of the incidents listed in the NIH documents involved minor pathogens that could be handled with standard safety equipment––and most reported incidents did not lead to infection or illness. However, some accidents where scientists were testing animals did result in illness, such as the Chikungunya incident.
The public often assumes that biolab accidents in the United States are rare, but the NIH documents prove otherwise. US regulations for biolab safety are often inconsistent and can vary depending on what each institution deems effective. Biolabs typically pay close attention to experiments involving pathogens, but other areas of experimentation receive almost no oversight. According to the Intercept’s reporting, if scientists are not working with harmful pathogens “biolabs don’t have to register with the U.S. government.” Consequently, there is almost no transparency into the regulations and safety protocols of experiments orchestrated by private companies or foundations.
Rocco Casagrande, the managing director of Gryphon Scientific, a biosafety advisory firm that has advised NIH on biosafety standards, takes serious issue with these lax safety measures. “Your favorite tech billionaire could, with their own money, do basically whatever the hell they want with any pathogen,” Casagrande said. He went on to explain, “They could take the measles virus and intentionally try to make it vaccine-resistant and more pathogenic in their garage. If they’re doing it for legitimate research purposes in their own minds, they can do so widely, safely, and no one can stop them.”
In addition to the Chikungunya case, the Intercept’s investigation revealed numerous other unreported biolab accidents. One document referred to an incident in 2018 when a researcher at the FDA’s center for Biologics Evaluation contracted a case of MRSA, a condition that can have severe consequences if untreated. The researcher claimed she did not remember any incidents that would have led to exposure. Additionally, biolab safety experts confirm that it is not uncommon for cases of exposure to go unnoticed. In addition to the Chikungunya case, an analysis filed from the Office of Science Policy reported seven cases of lab infections that went undocumented or undetected between 2007 and 2017.
The Intercept reached out to Susan Cook, Washington University’s biological safety officer, as well as Deborah Lenschow and Michael S. Diamond, who were employed by the school to oversee labs which study the Chikungunya virus. The three of them failed to provide a response. Instead, they referred all questions to a spokesperson who responded with a statement authorized by Susan Cook:
“As a major research institution, the safety of graduate students and scientists working in BSL3 labs is of paramount importance to us. We continually evaluate our laboratory safety policies, procedures and training materials and look for ways to incorporate new technologies and tools so that our labs remain safe and our student researchers can continue their critical infectious diseases research.”
In Cook’s 2016 report to NIH, she explained that, after the Chikungunya incident, a meeting was organized to discuss safety standards and increased training. Cook stated that the university’s biological and chemical safety committee would collaborate on ways to prevent needle prick injuries. However, according to minutes from that meeting, the Chikungunya incident was not discussed. Cook responded to concerns about the matter, claiming “most discussions of specific injury/illness reports are too granular to be captured in the IBC minutes.” It is interesting to note that the committee organized a meeting to discuss measures to prevent needle prick injuries, but never addressed the incident responsible for the concern.
After Washington University increased efforts to educate students on needle safety measures, two more reports of Chikungunya infections were documented. The incidents occurred a little more than a year after the increase of education efforts: From April 2017 to November 2017, two researchers at Washington University injected themselves while experimenting on Chikungunya infected mice.
As of November 27, 2022, corporate media outlets have not reported on the Washington University Chikungunya incident.
Source: 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)