Bio-error and Insider Threats: A Two-Pronged Hazard of Biodefense Research

By Chris Healey

Researchers may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria during a laboratory procedure at the CDC in Atlanta sometime between June 6 and 13. A CDC statement said established safety practices were not followed in that incident.

A follow-up statement by the CDC said risk assessment evaluations have determined anthrax exposure was unlikely. Most of the CDC employees involved have been advised to stop antibiotic and vaccine administration.

This scare marks the second anthrax mishap in little over a decade. In 2004, Scientists at Southern Research Institute in Frederick, Maryland inadvertently shipped live anthrax to colleagues in California who were expecting dead specimens.

Laboratory mistakes involving pathogens, dubbed “bio-error,” has recently acquired much media attention. To date, there have been no confirmed instances of bio-error causing illness outside the laboratory. However, another laboratory threat has materialized, one which resulted in infection and several deaths outside the laboratory almost 14 years ago.

Insider threats, or the potential for laboratory workers to exploit the dangerous material they work with to harm others, present a precarious laboratory safety problem.

Laboratory insider threats became salient after the FBI’s investigation of Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist with the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, as the suspect of the 2001 Anthrax letter attacks. Ivins worked with the anthrax strain he allegedly mailed across the United States.

Researchers working with select agents must register with the FBI and maintain a security clearance. The same requirement stood when Ivins began his work on live anthrax.

Following Ivins’ implication, a U.S. National Research Council committee and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reviewed researcher fidelity protocols and determined revision was unnecessary. No changes to the rigor or frequency of character and fitness standards for those who work with select agents were made.

Researchers working on nuclear and radiological material are subjected to more stringent evaluations. In addition to FBI registration and security clearance maintenance, random drug testing, observations of off-duty behavior, video monitoring of laboratory activity, and annual psychological assessments are required.

Those additional fidelity evaluations have contributed to the lack of incidents among nuclear and radiological researchers. There is no known instance of a nuclear or radiological research insider causing public harm.


Image Credit: CDC

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