A map of laboratory-acquired infections

Across the world, thousands of labs perform research on infectious pathogens. How risky is this research?

The American Biological Safety Association hosts a database of all published laboratory-acquired infections through 2016, which represents only a fraction of all infections, many of which were never published. To make it easier to see, I have plotted the data on an interactive map.

Figure 1. An interactive map of published laboratory-acquired infections through 2016. Locations are approximate, with added jitter. [Raw data, cleaned data]

As you can see, lab accidents are common and have probably occurred close to where you live. Some of these pathogens are extremely virulent or transmissible, including Polio, Ebola, HIV, and Smallpox. Some of the accidents caused outbreaks that spread beyond the lab, including SARS-1, which has escaped several times from sophisticated labs in Asia.

Current regulations are riddled with loopholes. Many highly transmissible diseases are exempt, as is research that does not go through the NIH. There is no centralized tracking of what pathogens are being studied, nor is there any centralized tracking of accidents. The database that I used was cobbled together by volunteers uploading published papers to a web form.

What can be done? To start, we should be more selective about funding and permitting experiments involving highly dangerous pathogens. And if we must do them, we should adopt a policy similar to the Federal Select Agent Program, which would require anyone working with those pathogens to register with the government.