Sue Fletcher explains how to ensure that your biological samples are packaged correctly
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of correct packaging of biological specimens for transport by courier or mail, from the patient source to clinics and laboratories, for centralised testing or clinical trials. Designated as dangerous goods, diagnostic samples for Covid-19 are classified as Category B (UN3373). There are strict regulations governing how such samples are packaged for transport (Packaging Instruction P650), and it is vital that all staff understand the legislation and how to be fully compliant. If not, there could be serious consequences, even leading to prosecution.
Non-compliance can mean risk of infection, additional workload for clean ups and re-tests and delays in diagnosis. For the laboratory packaging the sample there could be fines or even imprisonment.
Laboratory personnel are trained to handle human or animal samples correctly, to keep themselves and others safe. But, when it comes to sample transport the legislation can be difficult to interpret and costly to implement, both in terms of time and money.
How To Send Samples as Category B
When samples are being sent as ‘Category B’, the packaging must meet certain minimum conditions. Principally it must consist of three components: the leak proof primary receptacle (blood tube/universal container/swab tube); a secondary packaging (e.g. sealed plastic bag or rigid container); plus an outer packaging (cardboard box or mailing envelope). When sending multiple tubes they must be separated.
The primary or secondary packaging must withstand the 95kPa pressure test, and the entire package, with its three layers, must withstand a 1.2m drop test without any damage to the primary container. In addition, there must also be sufficient absorbent material included in the package to absorb all of the sample volume (special absorbent sheet, blue roll, foam, cotton wool etc.). Samples being sent under UN3373 Category B, Biological Substance should also display the appropriate symbol. There are additional stipulations and requirements particularly relating to air transport (IATA).
Trying to meet these requirements using standard materials can be a daunting task and lead to variability within the packaging processes, inadequate absorbency or excessive packaging (making the sample more expensive to mail). Ideally, DIY solutions should be avoided as there are specific tests regarding robustness, absorbency, etc. that elements of the packaging must comply with to be considered suitable.
To help provide some packaging consistency there are a number of off-the-shelf materials readily available to assist with compliance. The SpeciSafe range of secondary packaging from Alpha Laboratories is one example that provides a consistent, convenient and cost-effective means of compliance. The robust, blister type, leak-proof pack combines an ultra-absorbent gel-based material within the rigid container. It simply encloses the sample container and protects it in the sealed casing. Similarly, the ShuttlePouch provides a convenient pouch for individual vials with absorbent material inside. A wide range of other sample transport packaging materials is also available, including absorbent sheets, 95kPa pouches, rigid boxes, envelopes and labels and complete kits for sample transport.
Sue Fletcher is with Alpha Laboratories