Three scientists in full personal protective equipment
The International Biosafety Training Center at UTMB provides biosafety training to students, faculty and staff to prepare them to work safely at high containment at the Galveston National Laboratory and at other labs around the world. Credit: University of Texas Medical Branch.

Addressing Laboratory Biocontainment Safety: A Tool for Science Diplomacy

Laboratory Safety international cooperation pandemic preparedness biosafety Americas
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.ado9540

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of deaths and enormous economic loss. While the origin of the virus causing COVID-19 remains unknown, there is some speculation that it originated from a laboratory in China, which has contributed to concern about laboratory safety and security and drawn attention to the conduct of studies involving pathogens that have the potential to cause a pandemic. Indeed, a significant number of biocontainment laboratories are being constructed or have already been built in many countries with little or no experience in the safe and secure handling of dangerous pathogens.1

An international coordinated effort is needed to provide practical training for biocontainment laboratory personnel to reduce both the risk of laboratory accidents and the potential for future pandemics. Previous international collaborations on biosafety and biosecurity training have proven effective and can serve as a model. Such training not only addresses the urgent need for enhanced laboratory safety to reduce the risk of future pandemics, but also provides a foundation for collaborative studies that can help build trust between partner facilities and establish bilateral research transparency. The United States is poised to be a leader in this endeavor. However, the U.S. government is not currently allocating enough resources toward this effort.

 

U.S. Perspective

Working with dangerous pathogens at the highest levels of biocontainment (Biological Safety Levels 3 and 4)2 requires specialized skills for the scientists and staff conducting the research, as well as for the personnel responsible for maintaining the facility infrastructure. This level of training is not widely available but is necessary to keep both the research staff and the surrounding community safe and secure.

Over a decade ago, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), in partnership with several states, invested nearly a billion dollars to construct a network of biocontainment laboratories on academic campuses, which are now fully operational. Other entities in the U.S. independently constructed their own biocontainment laboratories to support their research activities, and several maximum biocontainment facilities are managed by the federal government, including by the U.S. Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. The facilities are staffed by experienced investigators and supported by skilled building engineers and safety officers, and they are routinely inspected under the Federal Select Agent Program. The staff of these facilities now play key roles in advancing essential research on dangerous emerging pathogens, including developing important diagnostics and countermeasures. Many have developed training opportunities for their own staff, and some offer training to international partners.

 

International Collaboration

High-containment laboratories in the United States could form the foundation for consistent, high-quality training of partners working in biocontainment laboratories elsewhere. The collaboration could follow the US model and would involve sharing proven best practices in safety and security, and introducing partners to national standards and norms for research with deadly pathogens.

Training at higher levels of biocontainment often involves an extended period of hands-on mentorship during which trainees work side by side with experienced investigators, often under a fellowship. It may take several weeks or even up to a year for individuals to gain the necessary experience in the proper use of personal protective equipment, the donning and doffing of the BSL4 full-body “space suit,” use of the dedicated breathing air supply, entry and exit procedures through chemical showers, and many other unique aspects of working at maximum biocontainment. Training is most effective when coupled with a research project being pursued by the trainee, often working in partnership with their mentor. This focused collaboration builds trust and facilitates transparency regarding the research being undertaken. The peer-to-peer bonding that develops has lasting benefits both in the conduct of continued joint research and in the creation of an informal but powerful network of experts who can draw upon each other’s experience and expertise to meet future challenges.

By educating scientists and engineers working in biocontainment using our proven best laboratory practices, the United States could help build a culture of safety and security in newly emerging programs internationally. 

 

Our Experiences in International Training

Between 2009 and 2016, the University of Texas Medical Branch and its National Biocontainment Training Center successfully provided over 10,000 training encounters for scientists, technicians, engineers and operations personnel from biocontainment laboratories across the United States and from over 30 countries. Using the Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) facilities as a real-world classroom and our faculty and staff as instructors,3 we offered theoretical, hands-on, and mentored training at all levels of biocontainment as well as a variety of special courses in facility maintenance and operations. When invited, we traveled to partner laboratories where we offered training within their own facilities, which allowed us to address specific questions and adapt procedures to local conditions. Training at the GNL was free of charge and trainees covered their own travel and living expenses. When we provided training at host laboratories, we were reimbursed for our travel costs. Through these efforts, we not only shared best practices with individual trainees, but also provided them with a solid foundation upon which to build their own strong national programs in biosafety and biosecurity. All the while, we facilitated collaborative research, stimulated a culture of safety and security, and developed a global network of professional colleagues. One example is a scientist from Türkiye who completed mentored BSL4 training through a fellowship at the GNL while conducting collaborative research on Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, a dangerous virus becoming more common in Türkiye. After her training, she founded a graduate program in biosafety and biosecurity and established the National Biosafety and Biosecurity Association of Türkiye where today she is the executive director. Our training model could be replicated in many of the existing high-containment laboratories in the United States.

 

Conclusion

Thanks to funding from Congress provided at the opening of the GNL, our training center flourished for nearly a decade; however, despite intensive efforts, the program could not be sustained. With the ending of Congressional funding, we attempted to sustain the program through a fee-for service-model with limited success. We now provide training primarily to our own students and staff and a few external partners, but our fellowship program for BSL3 and 4 work has ended. Support for training in biosafety and biosecurity does not fall within established funding streams for government agencies, and donors are often reluctant to support ongoing operational expenses.

The prevention of future pandemics is of international concern; however, a path to effective action is lacking. As we develop plans to mitigate the risks of future pandemics, we would be wise to build on the many investments already made in our national enterprise for research on pathogens of pandemic potential and to share proven best practices with international partners. By facilitating diplomatic initiatives around science and building bilateral engagement in laboratory biosafety and biosecurity, we can help collaboratively address the global threat of future pandemics while also offering much needed practical technical assistance in safe and secure biocontainment laboratory operations. The steps to be taken can be clearly defined, the metrics of success are easily quantified, and the potential benefits are great. Addressing laboratory safety together is fruitful ground for science diplomacy.

 

Endnotes

  1. Jocelyn Kaiser, “Growing Number of High-Security Pathogen Labs around World Raises Concerns,” Science, March 17, 2023, https://www.science.org/content/article/growing-number-high-security-pathogen-labs-around-world-raises-concerns.
  2. For more information on biosafety levels in labs, see https://www.cdc.gov/orr/infographics/biosafety.htm.
  3. National Biocontainment Training Center, award W81XWH-11-2-0148, final report, 2016.  https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1022067.pdf.
Capacity Building and Development Health Diplomacy International Research and Large Scale Infrastructures