More than 400 scientists, officials, engineers, and students gathered together at the National Institute of Public Health in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Friday to work on finding one cure to deadly diseases.
The gathering was not a convention. It was the second national meeting dedicated to creating biosafety-level lab standards. It was one of several such meetings since 2010, when the NIH moved to replace its decades-old criteria on what is safe for university employees to work on pathogens with a new set of standards.
“What we’re doing here is a real revolution,” said Virgil Ellis, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Informatics Center.
Each meeting occurs every few years, and is meant to create a vision for how all biosafety-level labs might work in the future.
The meeting included technical talks, presentations, and panels about experimental measures in the hopes of developing the program into a practical path for improving biosafety.
Friday’s meeting was held under the premise that developing a large-scale testing method for any hypothetical disease would take many years. That is why the NIH created three independent committees: a disease surveillance review committee, a biological attack review committee, and a committee with representatives from academia, industry, and other types of research organizations.
All three committees will begin preparing to compare and evaluate the three sets of standard that would allow any biosecurity lab to bring the experimental side of any disease under a comprehensive one.
The NIH is only one of several countries, with the British Medical Research Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, all participating in this effort.
Convention attendees were looking to tackle any number of issues: how long to keep a virus under observation before it’s too dangerous; how long to run an experiment that changes the genome, and if that can happen safely; how to design a number of different tests to determine if a lab is doing anything nefarious.
In one set of discussions, the NIH discussed planning protocols to protect against accidents. Researchers would communicate with each other in real time in order to double check that they are following procedure. Other researchers discussed how to protect against inhalation, injection, and sublethal mechanisms, which involve workers picking up a virus with their body fluids to study it.
Another session discussed whether it was better to contain microbes to an isolated lab that isn’t accessible to the general public, or to use high-tech water sterilization methods that could be used to make almost every house or public building sterile and safe.
Friday’s meeting had been specially planned to discuss the report of the NIH committee on safety standards for experimental biosecurity.