Sandia Labs News Releases

Sandia National Laboratories helping to safeguard world’s dangerous biological agents

Ren Salerno speaks with Fatima Ebrahim Shehab, biosafety officer at Bahrain's Central Public Health Laboratory, about conducting risk assessments during the WHO's Biorisk Management Advanced Training Program in Amman, Jordan earlier this year. Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Safeguarding the world’s most dangerous biological agents has been a top priority for a dedicated group of Sandia scientists for more than a decade, and now, this team is training laboratory leaders from around the world to secure deadly agents such as anthrax and HIV from accidental or intentional misuse.

This year, Sandia’s International Biological Threat Reduction (IBTR) co-developed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Biorisk Management Advanced Trainer Course (BRM ATC) which will be executed in each of the WHO’s six regions: Eastern Mediterranean, the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Western Pacific. The team conducted sessions in Amman, Jordan, and Quito, Ecuador, starting in April, and will present additional courses in Stockholm, Sweden, the Maldives, Nairobi, Kenya, and possibly Bangkok, Thailand, by December.

The courses are in line with Sandia’s efforts to ensure that potentially dangerous agents are not accidentally released or do not fall into the wrong hands. The need for such work was readily apparent after the 2001 anthrax attacks on the U.S., coming sharp on the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Until that time, most Americans had never considered the nation’s vulnerability to a bioattack. But more than a year before the anthrax attacks, Sandia scientists had formed a small team to look at ways to prevent and contain such threats, which eventually became IBTR.

In the past 10 years, the international community has taken an increased interest in mitigating risks related to the growing fields of biosciences and biotechnology. In response, WHO strengthened its work in laboratory biosafety, biosecurity, infection prevention and control. Sandia contributed to the revision of WHO’s Laboratory Biosafety Manual in 2004 and to the development of a biosecurity supplement in 2006. Additionally, in 2008, the European Committee for Standardization published a workshop agreement, which IBTR staff helped create, that focuses on standardizing biorisk management in labs worldwide; this international standard motivated the development of the current WHO training courses.

Sandia’s team continues to be a leader in the fight against accidental and intentional misuse of infectious diseases, and IBTR reaches into many countries worldwide with additional prevention and outreach efforts. Raising awareness, engaging scientists and providing educational outreach and technical support for foreign laboratories are critical to advancing U.S. national security interests. To meet that need, Sandia’s IBTR executes laboratory risk assessments, implements risk management programs and conducts many different technical training programs both at home and abroad, including courses with WHO. IBTR is seeing increased participation as more labs handle potentially dangerous agents.

“In the 10 years since Sandia’s team was founded, laboratory biosafety and biosecurity has become a particularly vibrant field.  The international community recognizes that safeguarding work with high-risk pathogens is critical to both public and agricultural health and international security,” said Ren Salerno, founder of Sandia’s IBTR. “Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of labs around the world that work with high-risk pathogens, and lab leaders are increasingly committed to taking the proper precautions to prevent those agents from accidentally harming lab workers, being released into the environment or being misused by someone who intends to cause harm.”

Sandia’s IBTR works across all of the December 2009, National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats’ seven objectives: “promote global health security; reinforce norms of safe and responsible conduct; obtain timely and accurate insight on current and emerging risks; take reasonable steps to reduce the potential for exploitation; expand capabilities to prevent, attribute, and apprehend; communicate effectively with all stakeholders; and transform the international dialogue on biological threats.” Four of those objectives are within IBTR’s core mission.

“This program engages scientists worldwide who handle dangerous pathogens and helps them meet best practices of safety and security,” said Jen Gaudioso, the program’s acting manager. “To meet that objective, we also work on disease surveillance, molecular diagnostics and various analytical work for the U.S. government to inform policy.”

To accomplish its wide-ranging goals, the IBTR has attracted people with diverse backgrounds, including physical security, computer science, biology, microbiology, physiology, veterinary medicine and chemistry. Sharing that knowledge and insight with other labs is critical, but the WHO courses emphasize providing participants with the tools needed to assess and mitigate risks based on their work and their labs. This is a departure from traditional risk-mitigation practices, which relied on a standard set of guidelines based on what agents were studied in the lab.

“We’re really trying to add an intellectual framework to these guidelines,” Salerno said. “Current guidelines can mean different things to different people, and if lab leaders lack the ability to understand why some of these guidance statements have been made, the risks of accidental or intentional misuse increases. With this new approach, much more responsibility is placed on the individual labs and their managers. They’re no longer just following a checklist. I’m confident that courses such as these, combined with other outreach efforts like the many we already offer, will continue to bolster safety and security in labs worldwide.”


Sandia National Laboratories is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Stephanie Hobby,, (505) 844-0948