Experts call for increased biosafety protocols

A recent editorial published in a leading scientific journal calls for the scientific community to take action to prevent the spread of potential pandemic pathogens.

Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester, writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, argue that the dangers posed from smallpox, the 1918 pandemic influenza virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome, go well beyond what is normally presented about other microbes that make the news cycles, according to

Klotz is a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a member of the Scientists' Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons. Sylvester is a science journalist who has written several books on medical subjects.

Klotz and Sylvester worry about the potential for the release of any one of these pathogens and are concerned with protocols that govern their handling.

"Simple mathematical analysis gives real reason for concern about the handling of these dangerous viruses," Klotz and Sylvester write, reports. "Consider the probability for escape from a single lab in a single year to be 0.003 (i.e., 0.3 percent), an estimate that is conservative in light of a variety of government risk assessments for biolabs and actual experience at laboratories studying dangerous pathogens.

"Calculating from this probability, it would take 536 years for there to be an 80 percent chance of at least one escape from a single lab. But with 42 labs carrying out live PPP research, this basic 0.3 percent probability translates to an 80 percent likelihood of escape from at least one of the 42 labs every 12.8 years, a time interval smaller than those that have separated influenza pandemics in the 20th century."

Klotz and Sylvester call this level of risk unacceptable and are urging the scientific community to require additional levels of biosafety handling protocols.