U.S. Government to Labs: Take an Inventory of Your Pathogens

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 27 2014 4:00 PM

U.S. Government to Labs: Take an Inventory of Your Pathogens

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Soon to be put on pause.

Photo by PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/GettyImages

Correction, Aug. 28, 2014: This post originally quoted Science Insider's report that the White House planed to request all federally funded labs suspend work for 24 hours. Science Insider later clarified that while it will request an inventory of pathogens, it will not ask labs to "suspend" their work. The headline on this post as well as the text have been corrected.

On Wednesday afternoon, Science Insider reported that the U.S. Government was planning to request that all federally funded laboratories working with “high-consequence” pathogens suspend work for 24 hours so that personnel may take stock of what they have stored. However, on Thursday the White House released a statement explaining that this was not the case. Instead, the White House is asking these laboratories to “conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down,’ ” so that laboratory safety and security, as well as practices and protocols, may be reviewed. This near-term solution is to accompany the longer-term establishment of parallel processes for federal and non-federal review and recommendations. However, contrary to the original report, the administration has not requested that work cease​. (Science Insider cleared things up in a follow-up post.)

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Manmade pandemics have indeed occurred before, and occured because the pathogens were being worked with in laboratories to prevent the outbreaks they ended up creating, as was the case with the H1N1 human influenza pandemic of 1977. 

The governmental request follows the potential exposure of workers to anthrax after the inadequate inactivation of samples, a mix-up involving a fatal flu strain that could put the global population at risk, and the discovery of smallpox in an unsecured government lab. (The six vials of smallpox were found along with 321 other vials, some of which were infectious pathogens that are “serious enough to be considered potential bioterror agents.”) However, the inventory stock is not expected to result in new policy or regulations.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Emily Tamkin is an editorial intern at Slate and a M.Phil. candidate in Russian and East European studies at Oxford. Follow her on Twitter.  

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