The Centres for Disease Control has some dubious competition in the mishandling deadly pathogens business. A investigation by The Guardian reveals dozens of serious safety lapses in UK labs. In one case, a government lab shipped out live anthrax because someone had grabbed the wrong tubes.
The Guardian found 70 incidents in the past five years at UK government, university, and hospital labs handling deadly pathogens that were serious enough to warrant an investigation from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), roughly equivalent to the OSHA in the US. In many cases, the screw-ups were so bad, the lab had to be temporarily shut down.
The live anthrax mix-up is the worst out of the whole bunch. In May 2012, scientists at an Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) lab sent anthrax out to at least three other labs. Somehow, the tubes got mixed, so live anthrax were shipped out instead of inactivated examples. Normally, scientists only open live anthrax samples inside a specially ventilated hood and while wearing protective equipment. Thinking the anthrax was inactivated, one recipient opened the tubes right there on an open lab bench. Two people were exposed. Luckily, they had at least been vaccinated, so they did not become ill.
The anthrax episode was serious enough to warrant an immediate shutdown of the AHVLA lab. But the incident was buried inside a HSE report, and the details have only come to light with the Guardian's investigation. In all, the dozens of incidents reveal a scary pattern of poor safety culture in labs handling the deadliest pathogens.
After seeing the record of mistakes at animal disease labs especially, one biosafety expert who reviewed the incidents for The Guardian exclaimed, "Does British agriculture have a death wish?" We sure don't. Goddammit scientists, be more careful. [The Guardian]
Picture: Anthrax bacteria, via CDC