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Lab Leak Prevention in an Age of Pandemics and Globalisation

autoclaves for pharmaceutical laboratory by priorclave

While the question of whether or not the COVID-19 outbreak was the result of a lab leak is still quite contentious, there’s no doubt that inconsistent training and protocols continue to elevate the risk of lab leaks globally.

In a lengthy expose, the Washington Post explored how “as new labs were being built [across China in the last several years], the kinds of safety programs and rigorous training that developed over years in the top Western labs were slow to take hold, and in some cases were simply ignored, according to inspection documents and reports by Chinese scientists who visited or worked in the facilities.” 

Philip Zelikow (who heads a team of experts investigating biosafety issues in Chinese research labs) told the Washington Post that problems with Chinese lab safety practices had been exacerbated by “an environment of extraordinary political and economic pressure [where]… biosafety culture and practices struggled to keep up with racing biotech skills and ambitions.”

Given the obvious political dimensions surrounding any discussion of technological and economic growth in China, it’s important to highlight that lab safety issues like these are not new—and not unique to China or the developing world. 

For example, the last recorded smallpox death in the world was in 1978 in Birmingham, England. This isn’t so far in the past. And Birmingham is no village far from modern medicine—it’s the second largest city in the U.K. 

That smallpox death was ultimately traced back to a lab leak. This was despite modern safety standards and practices being in place at the time. Even today, the precise route the virus took to escape in Birmingham is unknown.

How a 1970s Smallpox Lab Leak Still Impacts Labs Today

In 1978 the global medical community was on the cusp of declaring smallpox eradicated. The last known natural infection had been a year earlier in Somalia. That patient—Ali Maow Maalin, a healthcare worker—had made a complete recovery. None of his contacts had fallen ill. 

Then, in the summer of 1978, Janet Parker became ill with what doctors initially misdiagnosed as chickenpox. (This was despite the fact that Mrs. Parker had already had chickenpox as a child.) Mrs. Parker was a medical photographer in the anatomy department at Birmingham Medical School. There was a smallpox research lab at Birmingham Medical School, but Mrs. Parker was not known to have ever entered it.

“This was still something that was still discussed a fair bit when I entered this industry in 1981,” explains Tony Collins, managing director of Priorclave, a leading London-based manufacturer of steam sterilisation equipment for research labs. “They were never able to attribute the specific cause of this lab leak. But the enquiry, while not attributing a source of infection, extracted a few possible causes and required action on them.”

Collins goes on to give one example: “At that time it was fairly regular for labs to autoclave their samples and work in wire baskets. So, one possible source of infection—and clearly a hazard, in terms of lab leaks in general—was unsterilised samples leaking onto the floor while being taken to the autoclave. The solution to this was to make sure that all materials, including lab waste and discards, must be stored and transported to the autoclave in solid containers, so nothing could leak out of the bottom.”

Safety Crisis Leads the Way for Procedural Changes

But making this change wasn’t a simple matter of swapping in tubs for baskets, Collins explains.

“Wire baskets were popular because they allowed for unrestricted steam circulation. This is especially a concern when using top-loading autoclaves with in-chamber electrical heaters—which were the most common ones in the UK at the time. Tests were done and it was ultimately determined that for that style of autoclave containers must not be deeper than seven inches to get proper steam penetration all the way to the bottom. This led to a bit of a frensy of activity to develop suitable containers that were closed but still let the steam in when stacked.” 

Today, a variety of proven solutions exist—ones that have been designed and tested with the real dangers of a lab leak in mind.

This is just one small example of how public concern following the 1978 smallpox incident led to substantial changes to both Western lab methods and how sterilisers and sterilising equipment themselves were built, operated, and regulated in Europe. 

Safety has always been front-of-mind at Priorclave, even as other manufacturers have altered their design to increase convenience or profitability. At Priorclave, every autoclave is designed and built so that the easiest way to get work done is also the safest. This includes outfitting every model (regardless of size or price) with anti-microbial coatings, thermal and pressure interlocks, emergency stop button with lockout feature, and more.

Looking for the safest possible autoclave for your lab or institution? Give Priorclave a call.