From: The Revealing Lens - Mankind and the Microscope, 208pp, ISBN 0-245-51016-8, London: Harrap, 1973.

Appendix, pp201-202.


THE complete lack of legislation covering the handling of microorganisms referred to on p. 199 could be rectified by measures similar to those covering the use of radio-isotopes, drugs, poisons and the rest. There are many reasons to suppose that the lack of legal controls could become a danger to society (1). The first publication of such a proposal (2) was supported actively by the press (3, 4) and since then several episodes have strengthened the case. In the spring of 1973, for example, children were found to have been playing with containers of infectious material, a risk which the proposed legislation would eliminate. This aspect was discussed in The Times (5) and subsequently the proposal was discussed at length in a leader column published in the same newspaper

The suggestion has already been published, in a textbook published in March 1973, that ‘it is high time there were legal restraints placed on the conduct of research in microbiological laboratories, and it is still regrettably true that there are episodes of infection resulting from the deficient techniques used in many establishments’. (7) One month later there occurred the tragically fatal outbreak of smallpox from a research laboratory, which is clearly a reminder of the hazards attached to the experimental use of pathogens. It would be indeed unfortunate if the ‘blind spot’ we have shown towards microbial life for so many centuries (p. 193 et seq.) extended to a failure to regularize laboratory research. The proposed legislation, which is now being discussed by several Members of Parliament, is outlined below.


SCHEDULING OF ORGANISMS. Microorganisms and viruses would be classified according to two sets of criteria, designed to identify them as of high and low risk respectively.

SCHEDULE A organisms would be the most dangerous- i.e., pathogens that are not normally present in the environment and which are known to cause epidemic outbreaks when they are present. The causative factors of smallpox, plague, tuberculosis, etc, are included under this heading.

SCHEDULE B would encompass pathogens that are known to cause disease in man, but which are often found in the environment, and which are hazardous only when cultured, or when present in significant amounts. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and some species of Salmonella are examples.

The culture of pathogens would be restricted to properly competent individuals, or technicians under their supervision, and holders of Schedule A pathogens would be registered. This would facilitate research, and would guard against the production of cultures in unsupervised circumstances.

The prohibition of certain procedures at present widely used in laboratories, yet known to be dangerous, would be facilitated under this provision. The use of sharp hypodermic needles to transfer hepatitis serum is one example; the use of unplugged mouth pipettes is another. Inadequate conditions for the disposal of infective material, such as the pouring of culture media down a sink, or the discarding of containers with other refuse, would be prohibited.

As a result the coordination of standards, the dissemination of new findings, and the protection of both research worker and public would be greatly facilitated. The enactment of such legislation (particularly in view of the laws covering isotopes, drugs, poisons, etc) is long overdue.

1 Ford, B. J.: ‘No Law for Bacteria’ (Observer, 1 August, 1971).

2 —: ‘No Legal Control of Biological Hazards’ (New Law Journal 121 (5511): 823).

3 Anon: ‘Disease “risk” in Labs’ (The Guardian, 17 September, 1971).

4 Berlins, M. and Wright, P.: Call for Law to Control Laboratory Poisons (The Times, 17 September, 1971).

5 Wright, P.: ‘Absence Of Regulations for Microbes is Risk to Public Health, Expert says’ (The Times, 11 April, 1973).

6 Leader column ‘A Case for Much Wider Inquiry’ (The Times, 18 April, 1973).

7 Ford, B. J.: The Optical Microscope Manual (David and Charles, 1973), p. 196.