SARS-CoV (the first SARS virus) and its cousin SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing our current pandemic) are classified by the US government as Select Agents, organisms that pose a significant threat to humans, and could be used for bioterrorism. The current Select Agent program came into being after the 2001 anthrax letters event.
The Department of Health and Human Services, through CDC, maintains a list of the microbial pathogens “that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. These are regulated by HHS.” These pathogens are designated “Select Agents.” “SARS-associated coronavirus” is designated a Select Agent by HHS.
Laboratories that study Select Agents must be designed to ensure a high level of safety (BSL-3 or BSL-4). The microbial pathogens may not be transferred out of the labs without permission. Accidents must be reported to federal officials. The labs are regularly inspected.
The 2018 report from the Federal Select Agent Program was recently released. From the Introduction:
“FSAP is jointly managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC)/Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)/Agriculture Select Agent Services
(AgSAS). FSAP oversees the possession, use, and transfer of BSAT[biological select agents and toxins], which have the potential to pose a severe
threat to human, animal, or plant health, or to animal or plant products, in accordance with the HHS and USDA
select agent regulations (SAR)…”
“In 2018, the Select Agent program received 8 reports of loss, and 193 reports of a release of a select agent or toxin.
- There were no reports of theft.
- None of the losses resulted in a risk to public or agricultural health.
- Of the 193 reports of a release, registered entities submitted 66 reports and non-registered entities (e.g.,
clinical, diagnostic, or public health laboratories, which are not required to register) submitted 127 reports.
- For eight of the reported releases, the Federal Select Agent Program agreed with the entity that these
reports presented minimal to no risk of an occupational exposure.
- The remaining 185 reported releases did involve occupational exposure to a biological select agent or
- In 12 of the 185 reports, the entity determined no occupational health services were necessary
based on the circumstances of the release.
- In the remaining 173 release reports, entities provided 895 individuals (121 individuals from
registered entities and 774 from non-registered entities) with occupational health services,
including medical assessments and, if needed, diagnostic testing and prophylaxis.
- None of the reported releases resulted in illnesses, deaths, or transmissions among workers or outside of
a laboratory into the surrounding environment or community.”
It seems we in the US, and labs around the world, have been relatively lucky. Until now. There have been thousands of escapes and releases of Select Agents, but these have generally only sickened a few individuals, and only rarely did they cause deaths. From the 2018 Report:
“In 2018, FSAP received 193 reports of BSAT release and 8 reports of a BSAT loss. By comparison, FSAP received 237 reports of releases and 9 losses in 2017, 196 reports of releases and 9 losses in 2016, and 233 reports of releases and 12 losses in 2015. As in 2015, 2016, and 2017, there were again no reports of theft of BSAT in 2018.”