Policy News

Robust biosafety policy needed to protect Indian lab workers

G.B.S.N.P. Varma & Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.104 Published online 30 July 2014

The recent accidental exposure of scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, USA, to anthrax spores has triggered a renewed demand for a national biorisk management policy in India to protect tens of thousands of laboratory workers across the country.

Very few Indian labs have a foolproof biosafety system in place.

S. Priyadarshini

Indian biosafety experts have upped their demand for creation of a central academy for biorisk management to train laboratory workers in biosafety and biosecurity. At the recently-concluded International Conference on Host-Pathogen Interaction in Hyderabad, the experts came up with a recommendation to establish such an academy.

“We are sending a note to the Department of Biotechnology recommending establishment of an Academy for Biorisk Management to train people in biosafety, and biosecurity, prepare documents related to this subject in India and help draft national guidelines,” said Gopal Pande, Chief Scientist at Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, who has overseen biosafety programmes in Indian laboratories in the past.The academy, he said could start functioning through a national institution initially, and become an autonomous body in due course. 

Besides training and guidance, the academy could become a nodal certification body for people and organisations, he said.“Otherwise, if something like the CDC anthrax exposure were to happen in India we will be found totally unprepared,” he said. “The time has come to have a structured, systematic approach with national regulatory guidelines.”

India doesn’t yet have an integrated approach to bio-safety and bio-security of premises, materials and personnel working in its laboratories. Around 30 bio-safety labs currently operate in India involving universities, research institutes, vaccine makers, defence research and development laboratories working on bioterrorism and medical institutions working on infectious diseases. The premises, materials and workers in these labs remain poorly supervised and staffed by untrained personnel.

So far, there have been only scattered efforts at improving training and increasing awareness about biosafety in the country. The Biotech Consortium of India Limited (BCIL), an autonomous body associated with DBT, works with all institutions working on infectious organisms, and asks them to have Institutional Biosafety Committees which send their annual reports to BCIL. The BCIL prepares its annual report on biosafety and occasionally holds workshops but there are no overarching policy and regulatory guidelines in the country to effectively tackle biosafety and biorisk management issues.

Also, India’s Agriculture Biosecurity Bill tabled in the lower house of Parliament last year (2013) is still pending and is facing criticism1 for not including epizootics/zoonoses, disease causing organisms that can hop from one vertebrate to another.

“India’s preparedness to combat the threat emerging from research on infectious agents is limited to adopting some of the good laboratory practices and decontamination or disinfection procedures,” said Raju Kumar from the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADL), India’s first lab to have embraced state-of-the-art biosafety systems in 2000. HSADL, which works under the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh has been ranked 10th in the world and boasts of a level-4 biosafety facility, the only one in Asia at the moment. “The use of the biorisk management concept is limited to only a few veterinary and medical laboratories at present. India is in the process of establishing a number of containment laboratories for human and animal health safety,” Kumar said.

According to Cecelia Williams of the Sandia National Laboratories, a multidisciplinary federally funded American research and development center, it is important for India to realise that each laboratory requires a different level of biosafety management and so biosafety programmes will have to be tailored for them accordingly. “For example, I have seen gloves of just one large size being procured by labs – obviously, they won’t fit everyone and there’s a huge risk of contamination that goes unnoticed,” she said.

Director of National Institute of Animal Biotechnology (NIAB), Hyderabad Pallu Reddanna said, “We can’t work in isolation any longer since most pathogens are zoonotic. Biosafety in these times is non-negotiable." 


1. Manupriya, India’s biosecurity regulations face criticism, Nature India (2014) doi: 10.1038/nindia.2014.89