Thursday, November 6, 2008

I'm sick of working on a select agent. Sick I tell you!!!

According to the wictionary, a select agent is a pathogen or biological toxin which has been declared to have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.
According to the microbiologist xx dictionary, a select agent is a pathogen or biological toxin that, when studied, results in: (1) mass amounts of documentation, (2) paperwork, (3) endless training courses with the safety department, (4) finger printing, (5) inspections by people that were douche bags in a former life and (6) any other kind of treatment that makes a researcher feel like a criminal.
I am in a particularly foul mood about this because my lab just got a "surprise" inspection by the CDC on Wednesday (totally killed my Obama buzz). On the plus side, I did get to meet the biggest tool ever.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mind following the rules, filling out the paperwork or surprise CDC inspections. I know that they are just trying to keep people safe and ensure that we are abiding by the proper procedures. However, I do resent being treated like an idiot by some jack-ass that has never performed an experiment or worked in a lab. But, since he has memorized the latest bio safety bible he can walk around spouting out rules and regulations, crowing and strutting like he could not otherwise do. Grrrfuckingrrr.
During our first CDC inspection, one of them showed up wearing a skirt. A fucking skirt. Who wears a skirt to inspect a lab that requires long pants, closed toed shoes, full length lab coats, gloves and safety goggles to enter? Someone who doesn't have a clue about what they are doing, that's who. (Thankfully, these people weren't inspecting our BSL3.) We spent half the day wondering if it was some kind of test. It wasn't.
Anyway, just when I was getting over Wednesday's inspector douche, I came across this article in Scientific American: "Postal Anthrax Aftermath: Has Biodefense Spending Made Us Safer?"

The article pissed me off immediately with the following statements:
In the past six years, says Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright, “the Bush administration has driven a 20- to 30-fold increase in the number of institutions and individuals with access to live, virulent bioweapons agents,” to about 400 institutions and 15,000 people. Every one of them, he claims, “is a potential source of an attack like the 2001 attack.” Even before the expansion, some 100 scientists had access to the anthrax strain Ivins managed. Moreover, huge growth “multiplies the chance of an accidental release,” argues Hillel Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
Newsflash, every single person on the planet has access to almost every select agent organism. If you can find a map of endemic regions, and you can buy a plane ticket, you too can have your very own select agent. Of course, you might get sick and die without the proper precautions, but you can still access it without breaking any rules. It's like these people forget that the organisms we work on occur in nature and aren't man-made.
Also, I fucking resent being referred to as a potential source of an attack. Not only do I not have a clue how to weaponize a select agent, neither does anyone I work with or have ever worked with. Furthermore, everyone in my lab is approved by the department of justice, so if the labs are full of terrorists, then who is really to blame? Hell, many of these labs are under such strict regulations that they are only allowed to hire people from certain countries.

What about this accidental release referred to in the article? Let me explain why this is highly unlikely.*
In a BSL3, the organisms are only handled in a biosafety cabinet (BSC) which is located within the biosafety lab. The BSC has a small opening along the bottom that a researcher can put their arms through. Cultures, stocks, etc. are only opened within the BSC, which has an upward airflow that is directed toward filters. The BSC and the filters are inspected on an annual basis, just like the biosafety lab itself.
Obviously, humans make mistakes, which is why many precautions are in place for incidents, such as spills, that might occur outside of the BSC. One of the most effective precautions is negative pressure. Since air is sucked into the lab, and not out, the organism will remain inside the lab, even if it is outside the BSC. The researchers are really the only ones at risk if such an event occurs. Negative pressure is so important that panels monitoring the air flow direction are located outside the BSL3 entrance and we check them before we enter. Also, specific procedures and protocols are in place that address spills and other accidents. These protocols are discussed to the point of insanity during the annual safety meetings.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that special protective clothing is worn within the BSL3 at all times. When we exit the lab, this gear does not leave with us, so if anything were on the outer clothing (which it should not be unless there was an accident of some kind) it does not leave the lab with us. These are just a few of the many precautions we take and it doesn't even include the security measures that are in place, but I think you get the idea.
Anyway, I could go on and on about this, but the blog post will never end. Besides, it's just a matter of time before another article comes out that pisses me off and causes another blog rant. :)

*Keep in mind that I am referring to a BSL3. A BSL4, which typically contain organisms that are more virulent, have many more levels of safety precautions. Also, precautions taken within a BSL3 will vary by organism. Some of the measures I mention are general safety precautions which typically serve as a starting point.


Dr. J said...

thanks for your insight into this. I had heard about this before and it seems it would be very difficult to work on these organisms. I've also noticed a number of people from my own field who disappeared off the research radar for a while to suddenly re-appear on papers and journal articles featuring select agent organisms. I guess you have to go where the funding is, but it must be a much more expensive way to do it.

Appearing to do an inspection in non regulation attire is unbelievable and unacceptable - I hope that person was reported to their superiors. That is truly amazing, I too would not be able to tolerate being patronised by someone who lacks the experience to know what they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

Compliance inspections are always so much fun. I'm really surprised by the inspector in a skirt. She should know better.

Anonymous said...

As with lots of things you read in the press you have to consider the source. Richard Ebright has his own agenda on this one. He has for some time now been moaning about how biodefense spending has been diverting money away from, what he sees as, "proper" microbiological research. So to further this agenda pulling down biodefense funded research is fine with him.

As a side note, I reviewed a paper from his lab in our journal club some time ago. The more I looked into it the flimsier it became. Nice concept in theory but the execution was somewhat lacking.

I also remember a faculty member referring to him as a "Nazi" at the time. A reference to his willing cooperation and engagement with presidential (George W Bush) committees, at least until the direction shifted towards biodefense after 9/11.

On your original point, I'm absolutely with you on having the health and safety gestapo coming into your lab and lecturing you about things they don't really, fully understand. Grrr. If you think it's bad in the US you should try the UK (I currently work in the US but came from the UK). The US is a paradise in comparison when it comes to intrusion by these people. Just like you, I think that health and safety are extremely important, too important in fact to be left in the hands of such fuckwits (please excuse my french :) ).

Keep you chin up. Don't let the bastards get you down.

microbiologist xx said...

I neglected my comments for parties and alcohol, but I am back now.

dr. j.- In this funding climate I can't be surprised by people wanting to go move into some of these fields, but there is a price to pay. All the paper work and logs you keep really take up much more of your time that you expect it to. And yes, being patronized by douchebags is no fun at all.

academeic - I know!! It was completely reiculous. I know some of these inspector people are actually contractors, but still, a skirt? It's not like they didn't know exactly what lab they were visiting. Maybe she thought her pantyhose would count. :)

anon - I too have heard some unsavory comments made about Ebright. I've never actually read a paper from that lab, but now I am intrigued.
Also, good point about the fuckwits. They are supposed to be ensuring that all is safe and secure. Memorizing pages of information does not equal understanding. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that they can't find PhDs to fill these positions when funding and academic jobs are so difficult to come by.

Anonymous said...

On the plus side, it does seem that publishing is easier when you work with a select agent. The "me too" results that wouldn't fly in other fields seem to get published quite often.