What is biosafety

Biosafety: crucial in the fight against pandemics

Nature Health

The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, are among humankind's greatest enemies today. As part of this battle, biosecurity is of vital importance, since it is responsible for preventing risks to health and to the environment from exposure to biological agents that cause disease.

A scientist in a laboratory.
Biosafety is the name given to the rules and barriers established to prevent biological risk.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of health and prevention has taken on vital weight in society. Due to this complex situation, an issue of relevance and interest has aroused public curiosity: biosafety

What is biosafety and what is it for 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), "biosafety is a strategic and integrated approach to analysing and managing relevant risks to human, animal and plant life and health and associated risks for the environment. It is based on recognition of the critical linkages between sectors and the potential for hazards to move within and between sectors, with system-wide consequences".

Since the ultimate aim is to eliminate or minimise biological contamination, there are three important concepts in the field of biosecurity:

  • Biological hazard: is the potential risk of uncontrolled exposure to biological agents with infectious capacity, harming the individual.

  • Biocontainment: are measures used to prevent infectous diseases from leaking from research centres of other places where they may be produced. 

  • Bioprotection: is a set of measures taken to reduce the risk of loss, theft, misuse or intentional release of pathogens and toxins, including those governing access to facilities, materials storage and data and publication policies.

Standards and elements of biosafety

Biosafety is a complex discipline which is not devoid of dangers. That is why it is so crucial to have a set of rules and barriers prevent biological hazards derived from exposure to infectious biological agents. Generally speaking, the principles and components of biosecurity can be summarised as follows:

 Risk assessment

Workers who handle potentially contaminated biological agents must be aware of the risks and master the practices and techniques required to do their jobs safely. They must constantly and systematically assess the likelihood of damage or infection


Biosafety measures must be observed by everyone, because everyone is at risk of carrying pathogenic microorganisms.


The elements used to contain biological contamination tend to be divided into two groups: on the one hand, immunisation (vaccines) and, on the other, primary barriers — safety equipment: gloves, suits and masks — and secondary barriers — from insulated work areas to hand washers and ventilation systems. All of them are mandatory to avoid direct exposures to all types of potentially contaminated samples.


All waste generated must be disposed of in strict compliance with specific procedures suited to the type of material.

Biosafety levels in laboratories. Measures and materials

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States classified pathogens into four risk groups in 1974. The World Health Organisation updated the classification, ranking laboratories in terms of the pathogen risk groups with which they work.

  • Risk Group 1 (minor individual and community risk)

These agents are very unlikely to cause diseases. BSL 1 laboratories have a basic level of containment based on standard microbiological practices and no primary or secondary barriers are specifically recommended. No safety equipment is required.

  • Risk Group 2 (moderate individual risk and low community risk)

Pathogens that are associated with human diseases that are rarely serious and which are unlikely to spread. This also includes any derivative of human blood or tissues in which the presence of infectious agents is not certain. BSL 2 Laboratories have secondary barriers such as hand washing basins and waste decontamination facilities. Protective equipment includes lab coats, gloves and face protection where necessary. Protective clothing should be removed immediately after leaving the laboratory

  • Risk Group 3 (high individual risk and low community risk)

Pathogens that tend to cause serious diseases which are not easily transmitted, such as yellow fever, which requires a mosquito bite, or which can be transmitted by the respiratory route. In BSL 3 laboratories, all work is carried out in biosecurity (BSC) cabins or other sealed equipment. Secondary barriers include controlled access to the laboratory and ventilation requirements to minimise the release of infectious aerosols. Protective equipment is similar to risk group 2, but includes respiratory equipment in cases where there is a risk of inhalation infection.

  • Risk Group 4 (high individual and community risk)

Agents likely to cause serious human disease which is transmitted easily from person to person, for which there are no efficient preventive measures or effective therapies. Generally speaking, a BSL 4 laboratory is housed in a separate building or in a totally isolated area with waste management systems and specialised ventilation requirements to prevent pathogen leakage. Likewise, to isolate staff from infectious materials in aerosol form, barriers are used to work in a BSC with maximum protection or full body suits, with air supplies and positive pressure.

What are high risk laboratories and where are they?
What are high-risk laboratories and where are they?

Applications of biosafety

Despite having become popular as a result of their fight against SARS-CoV-2, biosafety laboratories are doing more than conducting research into how to contain diseases. Let's look at some other applications of biosecurity:


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), biosafety allows us to analyse and manage risks regarding food safety improving synergies among sectors, improving food safety and streamlining trade.

 Agriculture and livestock

In the case of livestock businesses and farms, biosecurity is used to stop illnesses from entering and spreading within and from expanding to other farms or to society.


In this field, biosafety deals with plant diseases, animal infestations and diseases, zoonoses — diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans — genetically modified organisms and their products, and management of genotypes and invasive species.