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Working with Infectious Diseases- Biosafety and Biosecurity

Since the beginning of 2020, infectious diseases have been in the public eye. With the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, being the star of the show. When the virus first arrived on the scene in December 2019, few expected that it would lead to the pandemic we are facing today. However, the ability of infectious diseases to devastate populations is not a new phenomenon. There have been numerous pandemics over the course of history, from the Bubonic plague that killed 75 – 200 million between 1331-1353, to the 1918 Spanish flu, and more recently the 2009-2010 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic.

However, we can fight back against these diseases. Studying the pathogens that cause them allows us to gain a better understanding of how they work. This allow us to develop new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic devices;our arsenal in the fight against infectious disease. Within the ViBrANT ITN we work with a range of infectious diseases from tick-borne encephalitis virus to the bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes. As many of these pathogens can cause severe human disease, it is important that we follow strict rules in order to protect ourselves and others.

How can we work safely with infectious pathogens ?

During the coronavirus pandemic, staying safe and protecting yourself against the virus has become a priority. People have done this in three main ways.

1.  Social distancingIsolating yourself from the infectious material is the best way to prevent infection

2 . Wearing a mask –  Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), like a mask, protects an individual when isolation methods have failed

3.  Washing your hands and surfaces– Disinfection methods can destroy the infectious material and prevent the spread to other areas


When working with infectious diseases in the lab, we use similar approaches, and follow the principles of biosafety and biosecurity.

Biosafety and Biosecurity

Biosafety is the containment principles, technologies and practices that are implemented to prevent unintentional exposure to pathogens and toxins, or their accidental release. Biosecurity is the institutional and personal security measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of pathogens and toxins.

World Health Organisation

In simple terms biosafety and biosecurity are a set of rules that we must follow to stay safe. These rules ensure that no one is infected with the pathogen, and that the pathogen remains contained within the lab.

Some of these rules may seem like common sense. Such as: no eating and drinking, or wearing shorts and sandals within the lab. But, some aspects of biosafety are a little more complicated. We need to consider how we can kill the pathogen, or what PPE should be worn. The answer to these questions depends on the pathogen we are working with. For example both lab strain E. coli and tick-borne encephalitis virus can be killed with ethanol. But, the PPE required for working with E. coli is a lab coat and gloves, whereas for tick-borne encephalitis virus the PPE equipment includes a full-body jumpsuit, face mask, goggles and two layers of gloves. This is because tick-borne encephalitis virus can cause severe harm to human health, whereas lab strain E.coli is harmless. This is an example of how biosafety requirements vary depending on the severity of the pathogen.

Biosafety Levels

In order to make assessing the severity of the pathogenic disease easier, pathogens have been grouped into four different biosafety levels. Each level (1-4) has different biosafety recommendations. Here, lab strain E. coli is a biosafety level 1 pathogen, but tick-borne encephalitis is level 3. Many common pathogens you may have been infected with, such as influenza, are biosafety level 2 pathogens. In addition, very deadly and dangerous pathogens such as Ebola virus are biosafety level 4 pathogens. To learn about the different safety regulations for each biosafety level and more about biosafety and biosecurity, check out the interactive panel below.




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