The Danger of ‘Invisible’ Biolabs Across the US

September 1, 2023
Dan Greene , Jassi Pannu and Allison Berke

The following is an excerpt from Time.

Lab technicians of scientists working on developing a vaccine against virus disease (Src: Shutterstock)

Recently, many California residents were disturbed to learn that a small, privately-operated bio lab in the Central Valley town of Reedley was shut down by Fresno County Department of Public Health officials after they found that it had been improperly managing almost 1,000 laboratory mice and samples of infectious diseases including COVID-19, rubella, malaria, dengue, chlamydia, hepatitis, and HIV. The lab was registered to a company called Prestige Biotech that sold a variety of medical testing kits, including for pregnancy and COVID-19, and it was likely storing disease samples for the purpose of developing and validating its testing kits. Government authorities are still investigating the company’s history, but it appears to have previously operated a lab in Fresno under the name Universal MediTech, where city officials flagged it for investigation regarding improperly stored chemicals.

From what is publicly known, the Reedley lab should likely have followed proper biosafety practices to minimize the risks of an outbreak, and it apparently failed to do so. It could have caused illness, disruption, or even death among local communities and beyond depending on the circumstances of an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a system of four “Biosafety Level” standards that are used worldwide for work with dangerous pathogens. Based on the pathogens that were being used at the Reedley lab, it probably should have followed Biosafety Level 3, which involves controlling the airflow inside the lab as well as a host of other practices, equipment, and facility design requirements.

Yet, astonishingly, the U.S. government seems to not have even known that the Reedley lab existed until it was discovered by chance by Jesalyn Harper, an observant local city code enforcement officer—the only such officer working full-time in the entire city. Once discovered, the Fresno County and California Departments of Public Health found it to be in violation of local and state codes, including those for registering clinical labs and managing medical waste. Based on our reading of available information, it was likely also in violation of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations for protecting workers from bloodborne pathogens. But these codes require proactive reporting, and the lab simply never reported any issues to regulators. In slightly different circumstances, it would likely have continued to operate unnoticed for a long time.

Continue reading at Time.

Comments Are Closed