International Tempest in Lab Industry Teapot

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MAYBE ALL OF US IN THE LABORATORY PROFESSION GOT A GOOD LESSON in the deficiencies of the national and international media during the past month. I am referring to the screaming headlines last month about how four laboratory proficiency testing (PT) programs sent 4,000 laboratories virology PT kits with live H2N2 influenza virus. (See pages 10-14.)

THE DARK REPORT collected a wide range of news stories about the issue. Reporters wrote stories with headlines about the “deadly” H2N2 virus and how public health organizations had acted swiftly to prevent the possibility that a laboratory accident could expose a lab worker to the H2N2 strain and cause it to spread into general population. Yet, these same reporters did not research the important details of how proficiency test programs are run, the differences in PT kits designed to test for culture method and antigen method, and the possibility that, after four decades, the H2N2 strain may be attenuated to the degree that it has lost the virulence that caused so many deaths during the 1957-58 world pandemic.

My point is that all the media outlets we reviewed covered this story only from one angle. They listened to the press conferences conducted by public health organizations, then called public health laboratory officials for further background and information. What was missing through all this coverage was the voice of the clinical laboratorian, specifically the clinical laboratories which received the PT kits with the H2N2 virus. Laboratories participating in proficiency testing programs did not have the same level of concern. Many handle even deadlier pathogens on a daily basis. That fact was never mentioned by news reports.

I believe we all got a timely reminder about an important issue in laboratory management. Every laboratory and pathology group practice should have a contingency plan ready to deal with the media. It is the unexpected event, the sudden accident, which can thrust a laboratory into public scrutiny. When the flood of press calls inundates the laboratory, it is too late to develop a strategy and respond in a controlled, effective manner.

Public trust in local and national laboratories is essential. The “H2N2 Affair” is a reminder labs must be prepared to deal with negative publicity at the most unexpected moments and when such media questions are probably most unwelcome.

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