In response to the recent revelations that some high containment labs have mishandled, misplaced, or simply forgot about some deadly pathogen samples, the National Institutes of Health is urging pathogen research labs to tighten up their ships. That means cleaving to regulations, reviewing holdings, updating materials, reinforcing training, and similar measures. To lead by example and as an incentive, NIH has declared September National Biosafety Stewardship Month.
"Recent reports of lapses in biosafety practices involving Federal laboratories have served to remind us of the importance of constant vigilance over our implementation of biosafety standards," NIH says.
You may recall that vials of smallpox were recently found by workers in an FDA storage space and may have been there for half a century (apparently some of the samples still had some life in them), or the case of the anthrax misdirected shipments that led CDC to temporarily shut down some labs and halt shipments.
Biosafety month is aimed at "preventing future lapses" and "promoting stewardship of the life sciences and biosafety awareness" for government labs, NIH says, and the agency is urging all its grantee institutions and contractors to do the same.
Specifically, NIH wants labs to reexamine their current policies and practices, run inventories of infectious agents and toxins, reinforce biosafety training and update training materials, and make a plan for how frequently trainings should be conducted.
In a related move, according to ScienceInsider, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Security Council will ask labs to inventory their pathogen collections and review their safety practices.
ScienceInsider initially reported that the government plans to ask for a 24-hour pause on research into the most dangerous pathogens. That was based on a notice sent out by the American Society for Microbiology, but ScienceInsider now says that report was inaccurate, according to an unnamed source familiar with the situation. OSTP does want more scrutiniy of safety practices, but wants to "provide flexibility and acknowledge that researchers know best how to address biosafety issues within their labs."
ASM President Timothy Donohue says that it is good lab housekeeping to review what microbes are present, inventory them, deposit them in approved collections and destroy any extra samples. And there are benefits beyond safety, he adds.
"Reviewing what’s in your freezer might provide space and save money if the newly found space means we no longer need to buy an additional storage unit," he says, adding that trimming down the number of freezers in use also make labs more energy efficient.