Bioethics Blogs

Promoting Health, Science, and Public Trust through Laboratory Safety

Biosafety in the labAs you may know from recent news reports, there have been lapses in safety practices at federal laboratories involving potentially lethal microbes such as avian flu (H5N1) and anthrax, including an incident involving discovery of 60-year old smallpox vials in an FDA laboratory building located on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD. Such lapses, which undermine public confidence in biomedical research and could put people’s health at risk, remind us of the need for constant attention to biosafety standards.

Scientists can never become complacent in routine safety practices—one mistake could have serious repercussions. Consequently, we at NIH are taking remedial action and precautionary steps to improve our lab safety protocols and procedures, minimize the risk of recurrence, and increase timely reporting of potential problems.

We also want to remind all of the universities, hospitals, and other research organizations across the nation that receive NIH funding that they also need to have their houses in order.

Today, NIH issued a Guide Notice to reinforce the message that our grantees must meet all applicable federal, state, and local health and safety standards for research conduct. Just as with federal labs, grantee institutions are expected to run rigorous programs of biosafety oversight that include attention to safe lab practices, training, and appropriate policies and procedures. In fact, such steps are actually required in the terms and conditions of all NIH grant awards.

To raise awareness of these critical issues, NIH and other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are initiating National Biosafety Stewardship Month—a time for federal labs engaged in biomedical research to focus special attention on safe practices.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.