Mongolian labs had serious biosafety and biosecurity failings

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By Karolina Corin

Animal and human samples must often be collected in remote areas and safely transported to labs to test for pathogens (Photo by Geoffrey Njenga /International Livestock Research Institute on Flickr).

Mongolian laboratories may be a bigger biosafety hazard than a World Health Organization (WHO) assessment indicates, according to a 2017 U.S. State Department cable obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

A 2017 WHO Joint External Evaluation (JEE) assessment found that Mongolia had “limited capacity” for biosafety and biosecurity, but the cable asserts that its biosafety troubles were worse than what was publicly reported.

Mongolia is an Asian country bordered by Russia and China that has been working to build and improve its systems that respond to public health threats. The JEE is a voluntary assessment that countries can do with the WHO to identify potential biosafety problems.

Though Mongolian labs often handle dangerous pathogens like anthrax, the cable said that their “animal health and zoonotic disease laboratories lack basic biosafety measures.”

A redacted source in the cable considered these conditions to be “a significant health hazard for the laboratory staff and potentially the public.”

Another redacted source said that Mongolia had the “‘perfect conditions’ for future outbreaks.”

Rooms and refrigerators with pathogens were kept unlocked and unmonitored. Some refrigerators were sometimes kept in unsecure locations like hallways.

The conditions of the lab facilities and equipment were poor and could cause accidental exposures. Equipment was not sufficiently maintained, and several labs had inadequate or unsecured ventilation systems, unsecured sewage, or old biosafety cabinets whose filters were not changed regularly. Due to its age, one lab was considered a biosecurity threat.

Biosafety and biosecurity standard operating procedures from the Mongolian Ministry of Health (MOH) were described as “outdated and insufficient.”

Transportation of samples to the labs also posed biohazard risks. Samples were “often hand-carried … without proper training and equipment, risking a biohazard accident.”

Biosafety concerns prevented one lab from performing tests to identify diseases, impacting its ability to respond to zoonotic threats.

The Mongolian government and lab staff agreed with the WHO JEE assessment, and seemed eager to address the biosafety and biosecurity problems.

The cable notes that the Mongolian MOH was reviewing biosafety and biosecurity standards to fix their outdated standard operating procedures. One facility was also “upgrading biosafety and biosecurity”, while another was building a new BSL3 lab to more safely handle dangerous pathogens.

The Mongolian government repeatedly asked the U.S. for help with biosafety and biosecurity. This included help setting up the BSL3 lab and training its staff, as well as help to safely and securely transfer samples from remote areas to labs.

The 2017 assessment is the most recent one for Mongolia posted on the WHO-JEE webpage.

The documents reported in this story were obtained from the U.S. Department of State through litigation under the Freedom of Information Act. U.S. Right to Know’s documents on risky biological research can be found here.

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