In the first study of its kind, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled statistics on problems related to the handling of hazardous biological agents, such as Ebola, SARS, and anthrax, at hundreds of academic and government research centres.
Laboratories that work with biological select agents and toxins—materials highly regulated for their potential to cause human disease—reported that pathogens were inadvertantly released 639 times between 2004 and 2010. During the same period, laboratories also reported losing 88 samples, although bookkeeping errors accounted for all but one. The remaining lost sample was accidentally destroyed by a commercial courier.
The study, which published in the current issue of Applied Biosafety, says that no occurrences of theft were reported.
Over the 7-year period, laboratories reported 11 lab-acquired infections, at an average annual rate of 1.6 per 10,000 authorised workers. Ten of the infections were traced to bacterial sources, and one was due to fungal exposure. None of the infections were fatal, and none were reported to have spread to other people.
The infections could not be linked to obvious breaches in personal protection, such as torn gloves or cuts from sharp objects. Instead, the authors suggest that workers likely acquired infections from the release of aerosols containing the harmful agents. The team says it is continuing to analyse reports of pathogen releases and lab-acquired infections to identify possible gaps in safety procedures.
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