Safety breaches at UK labs that handle harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi have spread infections to staff and exposed others to potentially lethal diseases, the Guardian has learned.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has investigated a series of mistakes over the past two years that led to scientists falling ill at specialist labs run by hospitals, private companies, and even Public Health England (PHE), the government agency which exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing.
One scientist at a PHE laboratory became sick after contracting Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes most cases of dysentery in Britain. The incident led the HSE to send the agency an enforcement letter to improve its health and safety practices.
The HSE held formal investigations into more than 40 mishaps at specialist laboratories between June 2015 and July 2017, amounting to one every two to three weeks. Beyond the breaches that spread infections were blunders that led to dengue virus – which kills 20,000 people worldwide each year – being posted by mistake; staff handling potentially lethal bacteria and fungi with inadequate protection; and one occasion where students at the University of the West of England unwittingly studied live meningitis-causing germs which they thought had been killed by heat treatment.
Of the scientists who became infected in the line of work, one was admitted to hospital after falling ill with salmonella poisoning at Pall Life Sciences, a private medical company. Another picked up a paratyphoid infection at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust; four contracted Shigella at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a biomedical scientist at The Royal Free Hospital in London became sick with two different strains of gastrointestinal bug after testing an infected stool sample.