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Looking to ship a biological substance, but not sure where to begin? There are lots of regulations and terminology, but once you review some basics, the process is straightforward. It’s imperative that you get it right, however, because you as the shipper are solely responsible for the package, and you don’t want to run afoul of potential delays, fines, or liability.  

This article will provide you with an overview of the different definitions and categories of biological substances, and how to determine the category, name and number for each. For next steps in packaging, marking/labeling and documentation requirements, see our companion article.

Dangerous goods and infectious substances

First, let’s zoom out a bit and take a look at some common terms and broad definitions you are bound to encounter. The first are dangerous goods, a very broad category which includes dry ice, batteries, metals, paints and some biological substances. According to the International Air Transport Association, dangerous goods are “articles or substances which are capable of posing a risk to health, safety, property or to the environment and which are shown in the list of dangerous goods in these regulations or which are classified according to these regulations.” 

 

According to the IATA, infectious substances are “Substances which are known or reasonably expected to contain pathogens. Pathogens are defined as micro-organisms (including bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi) and other agents such as prions, which can cause disease in humans or animals.” 

 

Before shipping, you must identify which of the following categories your substance falls under:

  • Category A Infectious Substance
  • Category B Biological Substance
  • Genetically Modified Organism/Microorganism

Now let’s take a closer look at each category.

 

Category A Infectious Substances

Some shipped substances are classified as either Category A infectious substances or Category B biological substances. The difference is the risk posed to humans or animals if the substance leaks. Certain higher risk substances are defined as Category A (UN2814 for humans and UN 2900 for animals). Category A is defined as: “An infectious substance which is transported in a form that, when exposure occurs, is capable of causing permanent disability, life-threatening or fatal disease in otherwise healthy humans or animals.” 


This includes cultures, or intentionally propagated pathogens include lab stock cultures or presumptive positive diagnostic cultures. Whether you’re shipping for diagnostic or clinical purposes, or have any doubt as to whether it’s infectious, if your substance falls into the list of these higher risk substances use Category A. For the specific list of Category A substances see the IATA document here.

 

Category B Biological Substances 

Category B substances are considered a dangerous good, yet deemed somewhat less dangerous than Category A. Category B is broadly defined as an “infectious substance which does not meet the criteria for inclusion in Category A.”

 

Genetically Modified Organisms and Microorganisms (GMO/GMMOs) 

GMMOs and GMOs are microorganisms or organisms in which genetic material has been purposely altered through genetic engineering in a way that does not occur naturally.

These might meet previous definitions of Category A or Category B. If so, then classify them under those other categories — always according to the highest applicable risk.

 

Exempt Patient/Human/Animal Specimen

“Exempt” materials are a broad and common categorization, yet this category is often the most unfamiliar to many. Exempt materials are defined as “those collected directly from humans or animals, including, but not limited to, excreta, secreta, blood and its components, tissues and tissue fluid swabs, and body parts being transported for purposes such as research, diagnosis, investigational activities, disease treatment, and prevention.” IATA and the DOT don't want to overburden medical professionals shipping relatively benign samples, so these fall under more lax regulations. 

 

Some examples of Exempt Patient/Human/Animal Specimen: 

  • Routine testing of blood or urine tests ordered for a medical examination
  • Cholesterol, Blood Glucose
  • Insurance or employment tests
  • DNA tests
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Tests done for other than testing for the presence of pathogens
  • Patient specimens for which there is minimal likelihood that pathogens are present
  • Substances which do not contain infectious substances or substance which are unlikely to cause disease in humans or animals
  • Substances containing micro-organism which are non-pathogenic to humans or animals
  • Substances in a form that any present pathogens have been neutralized or inactivated such that they no longer pose a health risk (unless the chemical itself is regulated)
  • Environmental samples (including food and water) which are not considered to pose a significant risk of infection
  • Dried blood spots, collected by applying a drop of blood onto absorbent material
  • Fecal occult blood screening samples
  • Blood or blood components collected for transfusion or prep to be used for transfusion or transplantation; organs and tissues to be used in transplantation

 

If you’re unable to make a professional judgment on the presence of pathogens, don’t use the exempt classification and use the Category B classification unless the substance is listed on the Category A list. Just remember that triple packaging is still required.

 

Identification 

You’ve determined which classification best describes your material, now you’ve got to give it an official name and number. All dangerous goods are assigned both:

  1. Proper Shipping Name = PSN 
  2. United Nations Number = UN # 

Category A:

  • UN 2814 Infectious Substance Affecting Humans 
  • UN 2900 Infectious Substance Affecting Animals 

 

Category B:

  • UN 3373 Biological Substance Category B

 

GMOs and GMMOs:

  • UN 3245 Genetically modified microorganisms 
  • UN 3245 Genetically modified organisms

 

Dry Ice:

 

Exempt Human or Animal Specimen:

  • Exempt Human Specimen 
  • Exempt Animal Specimen 
  • There is no UN #

Examples of Identification

Let’s say you want to ship 5X5 mL of mouse blood for a routine blood chemistry panel:

  • Classification: Animal Specimen
  • PSN: Exempt Animal Specimen
  • UN #: N/A

 

Let’s say you want to ship 1mL of an E.Coli strain (K12) which has been genetically modified to produce a common human enzyme that is not hazardous:

  • Classification: GMMO
  • PSN: Genetically Modified Microorganism
  • UN #: 3245

 

You want to ship 1mL of human serum from a patient suffering from a genetic disease to see if an enzyme is present.

  • Classification: Patient Specimen
  • PSN: Exempt Patient Specimen
  • UN #: N/A

 

You want to ship 1mL of human serum from a patient suffering from a genetic disease to see if an enzyme is present. However, the patient has a known COVID-19 infection.

  • Classification: Category B Infectious Substance
  • PSN: Biological Substance, Category B
  • UN #: 3373

 

You want to ship 1mL of a S. pneumoniae strain which has been genetically modified:

  • Classification: Category B Infectious Substance
  • PSN: Biological Substance, Category B
  • UN #: 3373

 

You want to ship 1mL of a research stock culture with Rabies:

  • Classification: Category A Infectious Substance
  • PSN: Infectious Substance, Affecting Humans Category A
  • UN #: 2814


Remember: Always classify materials according to the greatest potential risk. Once you identify and classify your materials, see our article on packaging, shipping and documenting biological substances.

 

Need more assistance? Consider working with a company like Mercury Business Services. Mercury offers a comprehensive shipping solution that allows you to focus on your work, and leave the shipping and logistics to the professionals. 

 

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