Opinion: Huge fines help to concentrate the mind


When potentially dangerous pathogens are released from supposedly high containment facilities, heavy financial penalties could be the best way of ensuring it never happens again

Susan Birks<br>Deputy Editor

Susan Birks
Deputy Editor

This year has been an 'annus horribilis' for multinational drugmaker GSK. Not only has it been fined US$490m by the Chinese government following the bribery scandal, and had to postpone production of certain vaccines in Canada while it corrects contamination control issues at its Ste-Foy manufacturing facility in Quebec, but now an investigation is underway as to how, on 2 September, it managed to release about 45 litres of concentrated live poliovirus into the local sewage system from its facility in Rixensart, Belgium.

The vaccine went through the local water treatment works and from there into the local river system. While Belgium’s High Council of Public Health has concluded that the infection risk is low due to high dilution and the high rate of vaccination in Belgium (95%), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) noted that susceptible populations living downstream near the Scheldt River in the Netherlands may be at risk if exposed to contaminated water or mud.

GSK is not the only target of an investigation into the release of viral-based agents. The recent release of anthrax and bird flu and other incidents has led to many warnings in the US Congress that greater scrutiny of all labs handling dangerous viruses, bacteria and toxins is required.

The White House has this month charged US universities with policing their research on dangerous pathogens that could be used both for legitimate purposes and for biowarfare or bioterrorism. Such research must be reported to the federal government, the policy states, and failure to comply could result in the loss of federal funding for the researcher or the university. But many commentators believe this new policy falls short of mitigating the risks.

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The world is seeing rapid expansion in R&D labs for work on potentially dangerous agents. While huge sums are spent on lab design, one wonders if enough is spent on training and informing lab workers on best practice. If Western governments were able to impose fines the size of those issued in China, perhaps organisations would focus more on preventing such incidents.