Biolabs are research facilities that study living organisms, with a particular focus on contagions. These labs are designed with special safety measures in place both to protect lab workers and to prevent the accidental release of pathogens into the surrounding environment. There are four biosafety levels, with varying layers of containment measures. Biolabs often come under criticism for their secretive nature, the potential risk they pose to the surrounding area, and their use of animals in research.
What do we know about biolabs?
Historically, little information has been available about biolabs, though in recent years investigative reports and increased government transparency has allowed us to learn more.
Biolabs are used to study living organisms, particularly those that are contagious and pose a threat to human health. They were created in order to study naturally emerging viruses and microbes, as well as those that might be human-made and used for bioterrorism.
Because of the inherent danger in studying microbes that pose health hazards, the National Institutes for Health have delineated four different hazard levels of biolabs, with the highest – level 4 – having the most stringent precautions. For instance, a level 4 lab is kept continuously airtight, whereas a level 3 lab only needs to be airtight when it is being disinfected. Another distinction, for example, between Level 3 and Level 4 is that level 3 research involves agents that “cause diseases that may have serious or lethal consequences,” while level 4 labs use agents that “cause diseases that are usually life threatening.”
The key differences across the four levels can be summarized as follows:
- BSL-1 labs are used to study agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adults. They follow basic safety procedures and require no special equipment or design features.
- BSL-2 labs are used to study moderate-risk agents that pose a danger if accidentally inhaled, swallowed, or exposed to the skin. Safety measures include the use of gloves and eyewear as well as handwashing sinks and waste decontamination facilities.
- BSL-3 labs are used to study agents that can be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infection. Researchers perform lab manipulations in a gas-tight enclosure. Other safety features include clothing decontamination, sealed windows, and specialized ventilation systems.
- BSL-4 labs are used to study agents that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease for which no vaccine or therapy is available. Lab personnel are required to wear full-body, air-supplied suits and to shower when exiting the facility. The labs incorporate all BSL-3 features and occupy safe, isolated zones within a larger building. (NIH Source)
There are estimated to be hundreds of level 3 and level 4 biolabs scattered across the country, but the exact number is not known, not even by the federal government. In Massachusetts, there are at least nine, most of which are level 3 labs. Details on these labs, including incidents reported to the NIH, can be found at the following links:
- Cambridge – Sanofi Pasteur
- Worcester – UMass Medical School
- Boston – Boston University*
- Boston – Boston Children’s Hospital
- Boston – Tufts University
- Cambridge – Broad Institute
- Cambridge – The Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard
- Boston – Harvard Medical School
- Grafton – Tufts University
*Level 4 lab.
These NIH records show, for example, that there have been numerous incidents at these labs over the years, including spills, exposure, animal bites, failure to contain, and, in one case, the failure of a positive pressure respiratory hood battery that went unnoticed. (Note: No records are available from Sanofi Pasteur because, as a private laboratory, it is not required to report incidents to the NIH.)
What are the animal protection concerns associated with biolabs?
Animals can suffer tremendously when used in research. Not only are they deprived of virtually all natural and social behaviors, but they are also often subject to painful experiments. Animals used in research are purportedly protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), as well as an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which is to be formed at every facility using animals in science. However, AWA standards are minimal, poorly enforced, and frequently violated. Additionally, IACUCs often suffer from bias and poor oversight, as they tend to consist of a researcher’s peers and colleagues. Learn more about animals used in research.
In the case of biolabs, because of their secretive nature, it is difficult to know with certainty which ones use animals, what kind of animals, and for what purpose, but it is safe to assume that many do use animals. In level 4 labs specifically, we do know that the following species are among those used: cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, bats, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, and mice. Further, given that biolabs are designed to study contagions, the animals are likely infected with various pathogens, including the most deadly. For example, some biolabs have done research with a mouse model of Ebola virus disease, a hamster model of Nipah virus disease, and a mouse model of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. In one case, research involving mice was conducted illegally, without the required oversight.
What are the health concerns associated with biolabs?
A significant challenge to understanding the scope of health risks posed by biolabs is the fact that only those that are federal or receive federal funding are required to report incidents. And even when incidents are reported, a great deal of information is typically redacted. For example, a 2016 USA News investigation discovered that several biolabs had been permanently banned from working with infectious agents due to severe and repeated safety infractions, but the names of those labs and the types of pathogens being studied were not made public.
Another investigation that looked at lab incidents from 2003 – 2015 found that more than 100 labs experimenting with potential bioterrorism agents have faced enforcement actions for serious safety violations. There are also known incidents where pathogens have been released into the surrounding areas. For example, mice infected with deadly microbes have escaped laboratories and individuals have inadvertently brought pathogens home to their families.
What can I do to prevent a biolab from being built in my community?
First, stay apprised of what’s happening in your town. Sign up for news and alerts; some towns even allow you to sign up for alerts on just specific topics. Also, follow your city or town on social media. These steps will help to ensure that you will be aware from the get-go if there is a proposed biolab.
In the case that there is a proposed biolab in your community, know that many towns in Massachusetts have successfully either prevented such a lab from being built or have restricted the hazard level. Many cities and towns, for example, have put in place municipal biosafety regulations, including Lexington, Cambridge, and Newton. Most of these communities also have ordinances or bylaws prohibiting labs above a certain biohazard level. In Cambridge, for example, level 4 labs are not permitted, and the Brookline Biosafety Committee issued a report recommending that only levels 1 or 2 be permitted.
How can I help end the use of animals in research?
There are many things you can do to bring about an end to the use of animals in research and science: