Safeguarding Deadly Pathogens and PoisonsPosted on by
Bioterrorism is not a new threat. One of the earliest recorded uses of biological weapons dates back to the 6th century B.C., when Persian armies poisoned wells with a fungus. Modern threats, however, are more complex and could cause widespread devastation. The anthrax attacks of 2001 focused our nation on making sure especially dangerous pathogens and poisons (which we call select agents and toxins) are being handled safely and are protected at all times.
Select Agents 101
Common examples of select agents and toxins include the germs that cause anthrax, bubonic plague, and smallpox, as well as toxins like ricin. The Federal Select Agent Program currently regulates 65 select agents and toxins. If handled incorrectly – or in the hands of the wrong people – select agents and toxins can pose a severe threat to the health and safety of people, plants, or animals. While some select agents are normally found in the environment and don’t cause human disease, many of them – if manipulated or released in large quantities – can cause serious health threats.
Why we handle dangerous pathogens
While it might be easier to avoid handling deadly pathogens and poisons in the first place, scientists have to work with them in order to better understand how to protect people from their effects. Research leads to discoveries that save lives – for example, when we create vaccines to protect from exposure to smallpox or when we’re able to track mutations of killer diseases like Ebola.
Research with select agents and toxins is done in labs that are registered with the Federal Select Agent Program, which is a partnership between CDC and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). As of 2015, nearly 300 labs were registered to handle these materials. Labs can be run by academic institutions, the government (federal or non-federal), or commercial or private entities.
Keeping safe, staying secure
To keep select agents and toxins safe and to prevent them from being stolen, lost, or accidentally or intentionally released, the Federal Select Agent Program (at the request of the U.S. Congress) created a set of regulations known as the Select Agent Regulations. Registered labs are responsible for following these regulations. To ensure that this is taking place, labs must undergo regular inspections so the program can find and help fix any safety or security issues.
We also provide registered labs with technical assistance and guidance, and help prepare for natural disasters or national events by making sure all materials are properly secured. Within the labs, all individuals who work with select agents and toxins must first undergo a security risk assessment performed by the FBI. This helps guard against anyone who may wish to misuse the agents.
What if there’s an accident?
The good news is that the vast majority of labs are doing well in following the regulations and keeping workers safe. In the event that a potential exposure occurs, the Federal Select Agent Program is immediately notified and takes action to help reduce risks and prevent it from happening in the future. In 2015, no potential exposures resulted in illness, death, or transmission, either among lab workers or people in the surrounding communities.
With the proper safeguards in place, we can help keep select agents in the right hands as we learn how to protect people from the deadly illnesses they cause.
2015 Annual Report and Key Findings
In June 2016, the program published its first annual report of key data from across the program. The 2015 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program demonstrates the program’s ongoing commitment to increasing transparency and understanding of the work done by the Federal Select Agent Program to regulate laboratories working with select agents and toxins. To learn more about the report’s findings, please see our infographic and visit our web page.