The Intercept made FOI requests to gather information about American lab accidents. Additionally, their article discusses the current lack of legislation to require commonsense biosafety strategy from researchers.

Unless they work with the most dangerous pathogens, biolabs don’t have to register with the U.S. government. As a result, there is little visibility into the biosafety of experiments carried out by private companies or foundations.

“Your favorite tech billionaire could, with their own money, do basically whatever the hell they want with any pathogen,” said Rocco Casagrande, managing director of Gryphon Scientific, a biosafety advisory firm that has advised NIH on biosafety standards. “They could take the measles virus and intentionally try to make it vaccine-resistant and more pathogenic in their garage. If they’re doing it for legitimate research purposes in their own minds, they can do so wildly, unsafely, and no one can stop them.”

[...]

“There are some significant holes,” said Filippa Lentzos, an expert on biosecurity and biological threats at King’s College London. Biosafety protocols are “not embedded in statutory law. It’s tied to funding.”

[...]

Between April 2013 and March 2014, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported five mouse escapes, including one of an animal that had been infected with SARS four days earlier. In a letter to NIH, a biosafety specialist argued that the frequency of escapes was due to the “complex research taking place at our institute” rather than a failure of training, noting that several teams at the university use a breed of transgenic mouse known for its unpredictable behavior.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:19 AM

I think this linkpost title would benefit from a dash after the "Bent over in Pain" part of the title, or better yet, from a different and more descriptive title entirely. The current sensationalistic title somehow undersells the article, because it's not just about this one accident.

I changed the title.

[-]gjm1y3-3

The reference to "your favourite tech billionaire" is weird; the topic at hand has nothing to do with billionaires (the thing in question requires money but that doesn't need to be a rich individual's money, and I don't see any reason to think that the minimum amount needed is on the order of $1B) nor with tech billionaires in particular (it would be no harder for Warren Buffett or Jim Walton to do it than for Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).

Every specific incident mentioned in the article took place in a university or government-run institution. (I think. I looked fairly quickly.) No private labs run by tech billionaires. Not even any corporate research labs.

The most obvious explanation is that the writer (or maybe some other person setting editorial policy) has it in for tech billionaires (perhaps as a proxy for the tech industry as a whole) and is keen to associate them with dangerous biological experiments to make tech billioniares look bad, even though there is no actual association between tech billionaires or tech companies and dangerous biological experiments.

The second most obvious explanation is that the writer is trying to cause fear and expects their readers already to have strong negative associations with the words "tech billionaire", and is keen to associate biological experimentation with tech billionaires in order to make biological experimentation look bad, even though (again) there is no actual association here.

(Of course it isn't, strictly speaking, the writer who mentions tech billionaires. But we don't know the context of the little snippet of quote in the article and I would be very unsurprised to find that immediately before Rocco Casagrande said those words the interviewer asked them something like "so you're saying that if Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk wanted to, they could open up their own biolab and there wouldn't be much restriction on what they do?".)

Every specific incident mentioned in the article took place in a university or government-run institution. (I think. I looked fairly quickly.)

The incidents in the article are sourced by FOI requests to the NIH. Private philanthropically funded labs and corporate research labs don't have to disclose their incidents to the NIH, so they don't end up in the article.

If you want Democrats to pass biosafety regulation pointing out that privately funded biological experimentation doesn't have to disclose lab accidents is very sensible. If some Democratic congressman asks Fauci: "What do you think about privately funded labs not having to disclose their lab accidents", Fauci is likely to argue that this is a problem that warrants government intervention.

(it would be no harder for Warren Buffett or Jim Walton to do it than for Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).

But Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg fund biological research directly while Warren Buffett or Jim Walton don't (Warren Buffet only funds it by giving his money to the Gates Foundation). The Gates Foundation also seems to be interested in research involving pathogens. 

The Gates Foundation is an important actor and no other philanthropic foundation is like it. 

[-]jmh1y40

I am tempted to down vote your response but have held off because I'm not able to get a good confirmation or answer to the questions I have. That said, my concerns with the response are:

  1. Just because private labs don't have to report to NIH that none, or even many, don't.
  2. A quick search seems to suggest multiple federal agencies are involved with lab safety at various levels.
  3. It's not clear if your complaint is really more about a particular database (NIH's) that overall reporting of lab accidents Or perhaps put differently, about some consolidation of reporting databases.
  4. Your hypothetical starts with the assumption that no reporting of accidents by private labs exists. It is not clear that is true.
  5. Your reference to the Gates Foundation seems like it may be arguing from a special case and then attempting to generalize in appropriately.

Additionally it appears the lead off incident in The Intercept's story is not actually a good example:

The needle pierced through both sets of gloves, but the student saw no blood, so she washed her hands, removed her safety equipment, and left the lab without telling anyone what had happened. Four days later, she ran a fever, and her body ached and convulsed in chills.

That is not a problem with reporting requirements (regardless of to which authority) but failing to follow reporting requirements. More regulation does not solve that problem.

Note, none of this is to say improvements are not possible, or perhaps even needed. But starting from an incomplete map sees like a good way to run the ship aground.

Your hypothetical starts with the assumption that no reporting of accidents by private labs exists. It is not clear that is true.

The intercept article writes "Unless they work with the most dangerous pathogens, biolabs don’t have to register with the U.S. government. As a result, there is little visibility into the biosafety of experiments carried out by private companies or foundations."

Here "most dangerous pathogens" leaves out illnesses like the measles virus that still can do a lot of damage to human, especially when modified. 

This claim might be true or false. I do believe that the people at the intercept tried to get their hands on all the reports they could find and that there was a lack of access to those from private companies or foundations. 

Do you think that private companies or foundations do those reports and if so, where do you think they are filled and why can't the people from the Intercept access them?

That is not a problem with reporting requirements (regardless of to which authority) but failing to follow reporting requirements. More regulation does not solve that problem.

The problem of following reporting requirements is one of the incentives. Currently, the NIH sets some incentives by expecting people who receive grants to follow the reporting requirements. 

I do agree that currently, the NIH does not punish their grantees enough for failing their reporting requirements. 

Ideally, I think there would also be criminal liability for biosafety officers who fail to report incidents. Creating criminal liability is something you can do with regulation.

[-]gjm1y20

We don't (so far as I can tell) know whether the reason why private biological labs haven't ended up in the article is

  • because there aren't very many of them
  • because they actually have better safety practices and therefore don't often have bad accidents
  • because they tend not to work on dangerous things and therefore don't often have bad accidents
  • because, although they have lots of accidents, they don't have to report them in the same ways as government ones do
  • something else I haven't thought of

but in any case it remains true, so far as I can see, that (1) the article presents (I'm guessing because it has) absolutely no evidence of any biosafety failures at private labs, but (2) it tries to insinuate some sort of connection between biological lab accidents and "tech billionaires", and I think that's a slimy thing to do.

(I think private biological labs ought to be subject to some regulation, including having to report major safety incidents. I do not know exactly what they are currently required to do and mistrust the spin put on it by the article, and therefore have no opinion on whether in fact they should be regulated more stringently than they currently are. My finger-in-the-wind guess is that they probably should be. I mention all this merely to clarify that it's not the conclusion I'm objecting to here.)

Do Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg run their own private biological research labs? (Asking the question is not a lightly-obfuscated way of saying I think they don't; I don't know what they do.)

So far as I can tell, Jim Walton doesn't fund anything much (though maybe I just didn't look hard enough). My point wasn't about the activities of the specific billionaires I mentioned; maybe Bill Gates is more than averagely interested in biological research. It's that it's not any more true that "your favourite tech billionaire could ..." than that "your favourite person from a super-rich family could ..." or "your favourite hedge-fund billionaire could ..." or "your favourite oil baron could ..." or whatever.

Zuckerberg funds the CZ Biohub which on the website describes itself as:

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is a nonprofit research center that brings together physicians, scientists, and engineers from Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, San Francisco. Working at CZ Biohub are some of the brightest, boldest engineers, data scientists, and biomedical researchers who together with our partner universities seek to understand the fundamental mechanisms underlying disease and develop new technologies that will lead to actionable diagnostics and effective therapies.

One of their projects is:

Viral Replication and Transcription

Amy Kistler’s group combines synthetic biology, genetic, biochemical, and computational approaches to dissect and compare the minimal components, host factor requirements, and function of diverse viral replication and transcription complexes.

To me, that sounds like the kind of thing for which you would want mandatory safety reporting.

The Gates Foundation spends a lot of research dollars on infectious disease research as well. 

Jim Walton has the Walton Family Foundation which has as its focus areas:

Environment Protecting Rivers, Oceans and the Communities They Support,  

K-12 EducationCommunity-Designed, Community-Driven Educational Change and  

Home Region Supporting Communities in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

People with different interests tend to fund different projects. Tech billionaires are more likely to fund something with biosafety relevance than someone like Jim Walton. Jim Walton could theoretically fund the same things as Zuckerberg and Gates but he doesn't. 

I do think that's relevant to whether it makes sense to make the point. 

[-]gjm1y2-2

I agree that the CZ Biohub's description of its work sounds as if some of it is the sort of thing that ought to be formally regulated.

I am not convinced that "tech billionaires are more likely to be interested in biology than non-tech billionaires" is sufficient justification for the bogus-looking attempt to link "tech billionaires" with biological lab accidents.