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Biosafety Expert Urges Lawmakers to Reform Laboratory Accident Reporting Guidelines
Gigi Kwik Gronvall
As the United States expands its research on dangerous biological pathogens, the government must reform its guidelines to encourage scientists to report laboratory accidents, a top biosafety expert said at a AAAS Capitol Hill briefing.
By creating no-fault accident reporting systems and encouraging scientists to openly share their incidents with other researchers, researchers can develop better laboratory practices and allow those exposed to seek treatment, said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"The best way to create a safe research environment is to allow other scientists to learn about their colleagues' mistakes before they repeat them," said Gronvall at the late October briefing organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP).
The AAAS event was a follow-up to testimony Gronvall gave 5 October at a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing. The hearing addressed issues in the wake of the widely-reported safety lapses at several of the nation's largest research universities.
Under Gronvall's no-fault reporting recommendation, the government would develop a "reporting system so that all mistakes and near-misses are captured, learned from, [and] the results disseminated" to laboratories across the country.
Gronvall pointed out that similar no-fault models have been used for aviation safety programs.
"[The aviation] program was set up because it was found that most incidents and accidents had the same root causes," Gronvall said. "But because the incidents were not reported... new accidents were not being prevented"
In addition to developing a no-fault reporting system, Gronvall urged the federal government to improve and standardize biosafety training and increase the number of biosafety officers at research institutions.
Because of the increasing number or programs working with pathogens, there are not enough experienced scientists to train their younger counterparts, Gronvall said. "The old model of a mentor and apprentice relationship for safety training is no longer sufficient to meet today's needs," she said.
Finally, Gronvall encouraged scientists and administrators to engage the public in discussions on the importance and risk of pathogen research.
"The public is sometimes fearful that more labs mean more accidents, or that terrorists will have an easier time getting materials for weapons," Gronvall said. "We can fix that perception by engaging the public and showing the rigid safety standards in place."
Kavita Berger, a CSTSP project director who has organized several events involving laboratory safety and security, said that community engagement is vital to ensure that the public supports research.
"It's this research that is going to provide tomorrow's vaccines and breakthroughs," Berger said. "Because of the recent media coverage of laboratory accidents, scientists need to make sure that the public understands the importance of research that goes on at universities, private institutions, and federal laboratories as well as the safety and environmental training researchers and staff receive to work in high containment laboratories."
On 28 November, Berger will host a Capitol Hill briefing on Project BioShield, a federal initiative to develop and make available drugs and vaccines to protect against a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack. The event is free and open to the public.
21 November 2007