Statement of Dr Richard Ebright, Bacteriologist and Lab Safety Specialist at Rutgers University

Eric–The following are additional comments on the recently reported UNC lab accidents with SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2:


The high frequency of breaches of biosafety breaches exposing laboratory workers to deadly and transmissible viruses in the UNC BSL-3 lab–six exposures in 56 months, which represents, on average, one exposure every nine months — underscores the high frequency of laboratory accidents in high-level biocontainment labs, and the need for biosafety standards for high-level biocontainment labs.

(The fact that laboratory accidents exposing laboratory workers to deadly and often, as in this case, transmissible pathogens is something that is well known to workers in the field, but that is largely unknown to the public.)

In the US, there are no mandatory standards–just voluntary guidelines–for biosafety for most deadly pathogens, including MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. The absence of mandatory standards compromises safety of both laboratory personnel (who can be directly exposed and infected in laboratory accidents) and the public (which can be exposed and infected by infected laboratory personnel).

Overseas, matters can be even worse, with no mandatory standards and often poor compliance with voluntary guidelines.

In the wake of a pandemic that potentially may have originated as a laboratory accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan CDC, the high frequency of accidents, involving the same family of viruses, namely coronaviruses, at the UNC BSL-3 facility underscores the possibility the pandemic originated as a laboratory accident is very real and that the possibility that a next, potentially even more catastrophic, pandemic could originate as a laboratory accident.

It is crucial that mandatory standards for biosafety in high-level biocontainment laboratories be implemented and enforced, both in the the US and overseas. It also is crucial that a mandatory risk-benefit review be required for approval of high-level-biocontainment research–something that currently almost never occurs–to ensure that potential benefits to the public outweigh the very real risks to laboratory workers and the public.


Leave a Comment