Biosafety and Biosecurity in Public Health Laboratories

By Michael Pentella, PhD, D(ABMM), Associate Director, State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa

Public health laboratories across the US promote a culture of safety in their daily activities. Not only do these laboratories protect the public’s health by rapidly detecting threats – they also protect themselves and their communities from dangerous microorganisms by ensuring safe laboratory practices and secure facilities.

Biosafety guidelines promote the use of safe microbiological practices, safety equipment and facility safeguards. Across the US, public health laboratories have implemented biosafety practices and containment levels. These levels correspond with biocontainment precautions required to safely work with microbiological agents in an enclosed facility. The levels of containment range from the lowest biosafety level (BSL) 1 to the highest at BSL- 4. State public health laboratories across the US typically have at least one BSL-3 suite in their laboratories. Laboratorians working in these BSL-3 suites have specific training in handling pathogenic and potentially lethal agents, and are supervised by highly competent scientists who have significant experience working with these agents.

In addition to protecting themselves and their communities, public health laboratories protect the nation from potential domestic or international terrorism involving the use of biological agents or toxins. This rapidly growing field is known as biosecurity and encompasses: physical security, personnel security, material control and accountability, transport security and information security. The overall goal of biosecurity is to protect biological agents and toxins from theft, misuse or loss. There have a number of efforts to increase biosecurity measures in the US. In fact, the US government established the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to provide advice, guidance, and leadership regarding the oversight of dual use life sciences research, such as research with a legitimate scientific purpose that yields information or technologies that may be misused to pose a threat to public health or other aspects of national security.

There are number of ongoing initiatives at the national level, including discussions regarding personnel reliability programs, biosafety laboratories competencies and certification of BSL-3 laboratories. As one of the APHL member leads on biosafety and biosecurity issues, I remain engaged in all of these discussions, attending meetings such as the NSABB discussions on personnel reliability and also briefing numerous groups, such as the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) to provide a perspective on how potential changes in biosecurity requirements would impact public health laboratories, especially those in the Laboratory Response Network (LRN).

Along with other APHL members and staff, I will continue to promote our long and rich culture safety while protecting the public’s health.

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