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In biosafety and biosecurity, the recent risk-based approach departs from a rigid one-size-fits-all model. Tailoring safety measures to pathogen and activity levels enhances flexibility, which is vital in resource-limited settings. Systematic reporting of lab incidents globally is lacking, hindering transparency and root cause analysis. Most accidents result from human or procedural errors, highlighting the need for investment in personnel training.

My name is Stuart Blacksell. I'm Professor of Tropical Microbiology at the University of Oxford. I also sit on a number of technical advisory groups for the WHO, many of them involving biosafety and biosecurity.

The risk-based approach to biosafety and biosecurity first came about approximately five to seven years ago. When we were revising the WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual, we recognised that we had a one-size-fits-all approach to biosafety which wasn't working. Now, we look at the pathogen and we look at the activity, and then we determine the risk associated with that particular activity. The benefit of the risk-based approach allows us to be far more flexible than if we have a one-size-fits-all. This is super important when we're working in low-resource settings such as in the tropics, and we might not have access to all of the resources that we would have in a more developed country. So, what we do is we look at the activity and the pathogen and we come up with a more flexible, proportional approach.

The reason why we need a systematic approach to the reporting of laboratory accidents, and also laboratory escapes of pathogens, is because at the moment we have absolutely nothing on a global scale that actually allows us to track laboratory-acquired infections or lab escapes of pathogens. This is required so we can have more transparency at a global scale in terms of knowing what activities or what accidents have occurred, but also, we can go back and do root cause analysis to determine what was the cause of the accident or the incident, and then remedy that so it doesn't occur in the future.

The findings of the scoping review that examined laboratory-acquired infections and lab escapes of pathogens over the last 20 years found that there was significant bias in the reporting of these accidents and incidents. In countries where there were already reporting systems in place, such as in the US or Canada, it appeared that most of the accidents were occurring in those countries. In fact, the reason for the bias is because they are some of the few countries worldwide that actually have a standardised or a mandatory reporting system.

Furthermore, the majority of the accidents and incidents were caused by human error or procedural errors, so we have a significant problem with people working in laboratories and not following the rules. So, there is a real opportunity here to invest in people and ensure that they are competent and able to follow the procedures in the laboratory.

This interview was recorded in January 2024

Stuart Blacksell

Stuart Blacksell, Professor of Tropical Microbiology at Mahidol Oxford Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, Thailand, tells us about his work on risk-based approach to biosafety and systematic reporting of laboratory accidents.

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