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Biosafety Professionals: A Role in the Pandemic Response Team

Kelsey Lane Warmbrod, Jennifer Cole, C. Matthew Sharkey, Aparupa Sengupta, Nancy Connell, Rocco Casagrande, Patricia Delarosa
Date posted:
August 24, 2021
Publication type:
Health Secur. 2021 August
Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of “normal” life in the United States, demonstrating weaknesses in pandemic preparedness and response. While several novel initiatives have been implemented since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, not all available resources have been deployed to their maximum potential—biosafety professionals are one such resource that could be better used to support local pandemic response.

Biosafety is an applied science used to reduce biological risks while allowing for continuity of operations. In biological research laboratories, biosafety professionals balance science, safety, and security interests by promoting responsible conduct and applying mitigation strategies (eg, engineering controls, administrative controls, personal protective equipment) to reduce risk.1 While biosafety professionals typically work in laboratory or clinical settings, their knowledge and skill sets can be used to conduct on-the-ground data collection of person, place, and time information and to assess individual biological risks that can contribute to innovative epidemiological surveillance initiatives, such as wastewater testing and collection. Biosafety professionals can be ideal resources to support businesses, municipalities, schools, churches, and other community settings in creating reopening plans or providing advice on risk mitigation during communicable disease emergencies, especially when local public health practitioners are overwhelmed with other duties. Many biosafety professionals come from a biological science background and can also help fill gaps in collecting local epidemiological data, lend scientific rigor to experimental design requirements, and expand and support local epidemiological efforts.

The World Health Organization has called for evidence-based guidance on how to increase or reduce mitigation guidance relative to the level of risk and degree of viral spread in a community.2 This is a call that biosafety professionals are well positioned to answer at the strategic, operational, and individual levels. A biosafety risk assessment, ideally conducted at the beginning of the process, is agent-specific and includes critical workflows for completing tasks in a specified location, which makes the analysis responsive to local conditions. It combines epidemiological data with knowledge of pathogen transmission, the physics of aerosols and droplet nuclei, and disease transmission routes—all topics critical to the control of COVID-19 community spread.3 Biosafety applies a cross-disciplinary approach to infection control; in the United States, this approach is modeled on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health hierarchy of controls,4 which leverages behavioral modification, building design, and engineering and equipment and defines layered protection around the individual, community, or environment. These targeted risk mitigation skills are adaptable and extremely useful for advising individuals, institutions, and communities on how to best adopt the pandemic guidance received from federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial (FSLTT) authorities to specific circumstances.

Outside of the laboratory, there are multiple examples of collaboration between biosafety, public health, and animal health professionals. Biosafety professionals successfully responded as surge capacity workers during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, establishing safe working conditions in clinical laboratories and hospitals in West Africa and helping clinicians across the United States determine the appropriate personal protective equipment for US hospitals.5,6 During agricultural epidemics with potential for economic impact or spread to human populations, such as the avian influenza A outbreaks of 2014 and 2017 in the US Midwest, biosafety professionals worked with farming communities to establish best practices for decontamination of barns and disposal of dead birds.7 However, biosafety consultations during epidemics have been largely ad hoc because, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, no formal mechanism existed for identifying and engaging biosafety professionals to support local pandemic planning and response.



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