Integrating Biosafety and Biosecurity Practices for Robust Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response – The 2020 63rd Annual ABSA Virtual Conference

By Sally Huang, Biodefense PhD Student


With the United States amid its third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, trepidations regarding the safety and well-being of the population continue to weigh upon the country. These worries also translate to the healthcare, public health, and scientific communities, highlighting risks with improper or poor biosafety and biosecurity measures. The 63rd Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity (ABSA) Conference kicked off its 2020 schedule by addressing these COVID-19-associated implications. Even as the conference was held virtually in light of the pandemic to prevent large gatherings and subsequent spread of disease, ABSA did not disappoint; the event operated via an interactive virtual lobby platform featuring experienced panelists, live virtual presentations, and exhibits showcasing the latest biosafety and biosecurity experiments, products, and services. Panelists displayed an assured attitude of commitment to utilizing lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic to foster a shared sense of responsibility, present biosafety and biosecurity best practices as well as forecast its potential for restructuring infectious disease preparedness and response.  

Overview of ABSA Virtual Conference Report

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Rachel-Paige Casey and Mr. Yong-Bee Lim. To provide our readership with a comprehensive report on the ABSA conference, we self-assigned sessions that we would write about. This report provides an overview, details, and comments on the following sessions:

  1. Session II: Spotlight on COVID-19
  2. Session IX: Biosafety Program Management
  3. Session XIII: Biosafety Assortment
  4. Session XV: Ag COVID Research and Response

Full session line-ups from the virtual 2020 ABSA Conference can be found here.

Session II: Spotlight on COVID-19

Notable panelists discussed the importance of enhancing and promoting biosafety in laboratories as the COVID-19 pandemic presented numerous challenges to the global community, but also allowed for novel areas of research. Concomitant to COVID-19 research and development (R&D) is the issue to prioritize biosafety and biosecurity to protect scientists and researchers as well as prevent laboratory accidents that may further proliferate the disease. Dr. Aderemi Dosunmu (Columbia University) addressed how university laboratories are ramping up BSL-2 labs to ensure a safe and secure research environment. This included personnel training, increasing knowledge about personal protective equipment (PPE), increase accessibility and availability of biosafety resources, and also highlighted the role of oversight committees to support institutional biosafety practices. By committing to these steps, scientists and biosafety officers alike will feel more empowered and at ease in conducting their work in research environments.

Luis Alberto Ochoa Carrera (Mexican Institute for Social Security) provided a noteworthy look into how Mexico juggled biosafety and biosecurity in the face of various infectious disease outbreaks. In discussing Mexico’s propensity to infectious diseases, Carrera lays out a candid reflection of Mexico’s experiences with the H1N1 influenza pandemic (2009), cholera (2013), chikungunya (2014), preparedness and response measures taken against Ebola (2014), Zika and measles (2016), and Dengue fever (2019). Mexico utilized lessons learned from each outbreak to generate specific actions to improve their biosafety and biosecurity measures, as well as raise awareness on how other laboratories and hospitals should prepare and respond to infectious diseases. An earthquake in Mexico City compounded the difficulties already presented by COVID-19. This complicated public health matters, biosafety, and biosecurity; however, Mexico displayed resolve and was able to handle the challenges in COVID-19 by implementing risk assessments, strengthening technical and administrative exchange of information, and improving laboratory and public health infrastructure over the years. Thus, Carrera reveals the value of learning and using past experiences as a basis to improve biosafety and biosecurity practices so that countries may be poised to handle future critical emergencies.

We also got an inside look into how biosafety training strengthened COVID-19 responses in Pakistan through The Pakistan Biological Safety Association’s (PBSA) biosafety and risk management (BRM) training program, which began in 2014. Mashaal Chaudri (Pakistan Biological Safety Association) revealed how participants not only learned proper biosafety etiquette, but also successfully integrated the knowledge and skills they have acquired during COVID-19 response efforts. Hence, this is one of the many cases presented in the 2020 ABSA Conference exhibiting the significance of interactive biosafety and biosecurity experiences to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches to affect meaningful change and response when needed. Biosafety and biosecurity programs have also shown how they can act as galvanizing tools to strengthen communication and cooperation between the public and scientific communities in order to build sustainable and strong infectious disease responses.

Channing Sheets (Division of Occupational Safety & Health, San Francisco, CA) recognizes that some guidelines may not be applicable to certain circumstances. In which case, it is important to take initiative and help establish new guidelines that better reflect the scenario in question. This was the case when Sheets discussed preferring the California Aerosol Transmissible Disease (ATD) guidelines over that of the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as CDC’s version lacked non-mandatory language to adequately enforce their guidelines. Yet, COVID-19 posed queries and challenges in interpreting the California ATD standard. To confront this, Sheets helped establish standards, such as California’s own airborne infection isolation guidelines, and recommendations to better inform the scientific community on how to encounter novel pathogens. These standards should be applied when encountering novel pathogens. This further comes to show the ability of lessons learned from past disease outbreaks to be translated to current events helps ramp up preparedness, readiness, and response.

Session IX: Biosafety Program Management

ABSA has been a strong advocate for inspiring institutions to establish cultures of responsibility in the life sciences to ensure that biosafety and biosecurity practices are upheld in laboratory and hospital settings. This is especially pertinent to rising dual-use concerns of advancing biotechnologies. Dr. Daniel Green (Stanford University) presented the need to foster a shared sense of responsibility among all employees by setting overall goals or objectives that allow employees to coalesce. This would promote biosafety and biosecurity efforts and achievements as a collective experience for all. Dr. Green also demonstrates how the International Genetically Engineered Medicine (iGEM) competition – a unique opportunity in which students push the boundaries of synthetic biology – serves as an example in which an interactive scientific experience can be molded with a culture of responsibility to produce exciting innovations. Further studies on how scientists perceive and mitigate risk, as well as scientists’ attitudes toward biosafety and biosecurity will help empower social responsibility. Even though institutions may have their own particular biosafety and biosecurity goals, encouraging engagement and providing training and skills will help reinforce the applicability and pertinence of these fields.

Alongside promoting biosafety and biosecurity practices, Dr. Meghan J. Seltzer (ABSA) addressed how the significance of outlining benchmarking guidelines should not be overlooked. Benchmarking, a method of capturing performance metrics, maintains its benefits as it allows for efficient use of resources, stimulates creativity, and identifies areas for improvement, but also possesses its own hazards by leading researchers to ignore context or letting confirmation or availability biases take over. To ensure best practices in benchmarking, researchers need to invest in proper preparation in anticipation of various scientific scenarios, devote time in understanding the full context of the issue at hand, keep open minds, and foster critical thinking mindsets to tackle the challenges ahead. These steps do not reflect any rigid formula or strategy, but do encompass essential elements in assuring that researchers learn the proper applications of benchmarking.

Dr. Richard G. Baumann (National Institutes of Health) concomitantly presented the need to keep research registrations relevant and organize committee reviews to inform Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBC) in order to compensate for the unpredictability of change. As research evolves, newly added procedural details may increase risk, thus IBCs should be updated to reassess projects as necessary. Dr. Baumann presents electronic registration practices as a helpful solution enabling periodic reviews of projects and building strong communication ties with entities, like the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Moreover, it would help bring novel research practices to the attention of the IBC for integration into modern scientific protocols. These developments would have to be sustained for the long-haul as Dr. Baumann notes that biosafety is an endeavor requiring effort and coordination and is not an issue that can be mastered within a singular event. Biosafety is rooted in communication and relies on a shared sense of responsibility to promote institutional unity and support. Therefore, by engaging employees, researchers, and communities in lively interactions and discussions, Dr. Baumann is confident that employees and institutions would be more willing to embrace necessary changes for upholding biosafety.

Dr. Kara Held (Baker) presented the results of her experiment conducted with Baker biosafety cabinets (BSC), which tested the myth of whether overcrowding a BSC can lead to a loss of BSC protection. In a two-part experiment, it was revealed that the BSC can handle up to 75% coverage (with no items covering the grille of the BSC) while still being compliant with Standards Organization (ISO) Class 5 before losing air cleanliness. Then, aerosol microbiological testing revealed that more than 50% coverage within the BSC can lead to a loss of personnel protection. Proving the myth that BSC overcrowding can, indeed, lead to loss of personnel protection shows the importance of proper management and use of equipment to supplement conventional biosafety rules.

Session XIII: Biosafety Assortment

This panel emphasized the role of zoonotic challenges and environmental health in biosafety. Dr. Susan E. Vleck (ABSA) described potential biosafety issues associated with zoonotic disease research that involve animal interactions. Whether an expert or a novice, laboratory personnel and husbandry staff should be informed on best practices for how to study and interact with animals while protecting their own well-being as well as the animals. Ignorance of the relevant knowledge and skills can potentially cause further spread of disease. Methods reducing these risks will rely on a combination of veterinary, occupational health, and biosafety perspectives. More importantly, communication strategies are key to improving PPE and training updates, such as those that were solidified with the creation of the Animal Research Occupational Health and Safety Program. With this program streamlining incident investigations, risk assessments, and implementation of programmatic changes, communication and safety for researchers and staff were improved, demonstrating how a top-down integrative approach underpins biosafety for personnel and animals alike.

Kim DiGiandomenico (ABSA) similarly addressed the importance of discussing and enforcing occupational health and safety risk considerations to clinical trials and patient safety when conducting commercial scale cell and gene therapy. In order to do so, partnerships must be created across industry and supply chains to foster industry sharing, learning, and development of best solutions for implementation. By highlighting the nexus of environmental health, biosafety, and risk assessment as a shared responsibility affecting multiple disciplines at all organizational levels, commercial scale manufacturing can become a more streamlined process with tailored handling and management controls.

Session XV: Ag COVID Research and Response

As the current COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc upon the international community, scientists are conducting animal research to assess susceptibility of various species to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) as well as associated biosafety implications. Angela Birnbaum (ABSA) reflected upon the need to establish robust biosafety and biosecurity infrastructure for animal research to safeguard personnel and animal safety when she and her laboratory received their first samples of SARS-CoV-2. This includes implementing proper training/teaching, safe sample movement out of BSL-3 laboratories, and quality assurance. Not only do these steps promote a safer and more secure work environment, but it also enables personnel to more effectively mobilize resources when handling extra workloads brought on by the pandemic.

Dr. Tony Schountz (Colorado State University) then presented his unique findings on whether certain species of bats and rodents were susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and also discussed best practices in handling animal research. One of the biosafety concerns when studying Jamaican fruit bats during their investigation was preventing bats’ teeth from breaking vital PPE equipment, which could have caused significant consequences for the researcher. Subsequent studies of the Cricetidae species (i.e., Syrian hamsters) illuminated overlap with human ACE-2 receptors, signifying possibilities of future spillover events. No matter the animal subject, Dr. Schountz makes the point of promoting biosafety protections for the animals so as to not endanger or agitate them. Promoting an environment based on sound biosafety and biosecurity will not only soothe the animals, but will also help scientists conduct research safely and securely.

Dr. Steve Higgs (Kansas State University) also conducted transmission and susceptibility experiments at the Kansas State University Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI), which assessed whether SARS-CoV-2-infected mosquitoes can cause vector-borne transmission. This notion is indeed daunting as it alludes to rapid infections of people of all ages and would be particularly burdensome for countries with abundant mosquito populations. Fortunately, results showed that SARS-CoV-2 is not infectious in mosquitoes. This has prompted additional research in animals including swine, cats, and hamsters. Further, BRI has also shown its propensity to initiate scientific experiments in response to current events as they currently study SARS-CoV-2 survivability on different surfaces within meat packing plants after news of COVID-19 outbreaks in such facilities.

Biosafety and Biosecurity as the Avatar for Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response

Each session featured panelists presenting the newest biosafety and biosecurity insights in response to COVID-19-derived challenges in the life sciences. In a time when the pandemic presses on, more strongly in some parts of the world compared to others, the adversities faced so far also served as catalysts for further COVID-19 research and development (R&D), providing opportunities for biosafety and biosecurity to take the reins on guiding institutional change and laboratory operational improvements. What the 2020 ABSA Conference has shown is the mettle, commitment, and initiative necessary to overcome obstacles posed by infectious diseases. As daunting and burdensome as infectious disease are, the scientific community strives to make impactful and positive changes so that we can adapt to an increasing infectious disease threat landscape aggravated by pressures such as globalization, urbanization, and climate change. Developments come at a time when the world can no longer ignore the benefits of promoting biosafety and biosecurity. These disciplines have proven their merit in increasing human and animal protection, and are also presented as lifelines for the healthcare, public health, and scientific communities to change and adapt to a new infectious disease-fused reality that will be essential in enduring and navigating a post-COVID-19 environment.

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