The curious case of tuberculosis (and more)

If you have confidence in incident reports filed with NIH, then you probably think that the vast majority of BSL-3 lab accidents are caused by tuberculosis researchers like this one. I have rather many doubts about that.

[Today includes discussion of a sewage spill at USDA’s Ames, Iowa lab, and an interesting incident of the biosafety staff at a major northeastern institution rebelling against an IBC reluctant to report problems.]

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this post is about a tuberculosis lab accident. It’s not. At least not exactly. It’s about many of them, and what they mean, and don’t mean, as best as I can determine at this point in time.

For the past several months I’ve had FOIA pending with NIH for reports of lab accidents. In some cases, I am also requesting such reports directly from the institutions themselves. At this point, neither process is complete, so my observations are based on incomplete data.

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A first look at lab accidents

If the United States had an effective system of reporting laboratory accidents, a situation like that engulfing the Wuhan Institute of Virology might be avoided. And, obviously, the ends of public health served. And, probably, more accidents avoided in the first place. But the United States does not have an effective system of accident reporting, and there’s little prospect of the National Institutes of Health creating one.

The potential for accidents, and here I include unintended but potentially dangerous outcomes, is the single biggest reason for the existence of the Guidelines. And the potential for those accidents to have (human, animal, or plant) health, economic, and reputational impacts on the public is the biggest reason for the existence of the Guidelines’ Public Access Provisions.

There are a lot of issues to unpack and discuss about lab accidents and their reporting. This first look is only an overview. This is not a post about any specific lab accident, although you can expect such posts in the future.

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