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Plasmodium falicparum Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS)

Updated December 1, 2023
Disclaimer: Biosafety level, and all other precautions noted here are subject to change after a risk assessment by EHS. This reference material is provided to laboratories to aid with the lab-specific risk assessment.


Agent Type Risk Group Biosafety Level
Parasite RG-2 BSL-2

Agent Characteristics 

Risk Group: RG-2 associated with human disease, rarely serious; preventive or therapeutic interventions often available.

Agent Type: Parasite 

Description: Plasmodium is an apicomplexan parasite that causes malaria. Five species in the genus can infect humans Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malariae, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium knowlesi. Plasmodium falciparum causes the most severe form and higher mortality rates. The asexual stage in the vertebrate host needs the red blood cell (RBC) to survive. The sexual stages are transmitted from the vertebrate host to the Anopheles mosquito when the mosquito feeds. The oocysts mature in the midgut, sporozoites are stored in the salivary glands until the next meal. As many as 34 laboratory-acquired infections have occurred with Plasmodium with roughly half of those occurring from the vector.

Host Range: The female Anopheles mosquito and warm-blooded vertebrates. Humans and other vertebrates are secondary hosts. 

Host Shedding: Blood 

Route of Exposure to Humans: Malaria is a blood-borne pathogen and can be transmitted through a mosquito bite or needle stick. Malaria cannot spread through person-to-person transmission.

Infectious Dose: Poorly characterized

Incubation Period: The liver infection initiated by sporozoites injected during a mosquito bite is asymptomatic and may last up to 30 days, depending on the Plasmodium species. The incubation period ranges from 10 days to four weeks in duration.

Health Hazards

Typically malaria presents as an acute febrile illness with cycles of feeling hot and cold. Patients may experience confusion, sweating, and fatigue. Signs and symptoms of infection may include:

  • Cold stage (sensation of cold, shivering)
  • Hot stage (fever, headaches, vomiting; seizures in young children)
  • Sweating stage (sweats, return to normal temperature, tiredness).

There are reproductive health concerns for pregnant persons and counseling with a medical practitioner should be sought before work with Plasmodium. In countries where cases of malaria are infrequent such as the USA, these symptoms may be attributed to influenza, a cold, or other common infections, especially if malaria is not suspected.

Immunizations: None available                                        

Prophylaxis*: Chemical prophylaxis is available for the treatment of malaria

*Formal medical advice is obtained during medical consultations with Cornell Health or primary healthcare provider as needed.

Agent Viability 

Survival Outside Host Disinfection Inactivation
Survival outside the host is minimal. Hepatocytes are required for survival. Plasmodium is susceptible to 70% ethanol and freshly made 10% bleach. Plasmodium is susceptible to heat inactivation

For more guidance on disinfection see disinfectant selection.

Laboratory Hazards 

  • Handling of sharps (needles, scalpels, microtome blades, broken glass, etc.)
  • Equipment contamination
  • Exposed skin/uncovered wounds (including broken cuticles)

Laboratory Acquired Infection (LAI) History: Within the research community, Plasmodium spp. has caused at least 34 laboratory-acquired infections, with half as the result of arthropod-borne infections. There have been 9 infections specifically from Plasmodium falciparum.

Laboratory Handling Guidelines 

Laboratory Biosafety Level (BSL): BSL-2


Lab Engineering Controls Personal Protective Equipment
  • Single gloves
  • Snap-front lab coat with cinch cuffs
  • Additional mucous membrane protection

At a minimum, personnel are required to don gloves, closed-toed shoes, lab coat, and appropriate face and eye protection before working with ­­­­­­­Plasmodium-infected samplesAdditional PPE may be required depending on lab-specific SOPs - for instance, a gown with tight-fitting cuffs may be required when working with infected mosquitos.

Waste Management: Regulated Medical Waste (RMW)

Shipping Guidance: Refer to EHS Biological Materials Shipping 

Arthropod Containment Guidance

Arthropod Containment Level (ACL): ACL-2

Perform inoculations: In glovebox equipped with a vacuum aspirator system

Cage change: In glovebox equipped with a vacuum aspirator system

Housing: Primary containment in shatter-proof container screened with a mesh of an appropriate size to prevent escape. Secondary containment in mesh cages with a biohazard sticker affixed.

Loose arthropods must be killed and disposed, or recaptured and returned to the container from which they escaped. Infected arthropods must not be killed with bare hands and must be manipulated using filtered mechanical or vacuum aspirators or other appropriate means (e.g., forceps, paintbrushes, gloved hands). An accounting system for all infected arthropods must be in place.

Exposure and Spill Procedures 

Mucous Membranes: Flush eyes, mouth, or nose for 15 minutes at an eyewash station. See: responding to exposures.

Other Exposures: Wash with soap and water for 15 minutes (open wounds, sores, etc.) or a minimum of 20 seconds for areas with intact skin. See:  responding to exposures.

Small Spills: Notify others working in the lab. Evacuate the area and allow 15 minutes for aerosols to settle. Don appropriate PPE. Cover the area of the spill with paper towels and apply disinfectant, working from the perimeter toward the center. Allow 30 minutes of contact time before disposal and cleanup of spill materials. See:  spill cleanup

Large Spills: Request assistance from the EHS Spill Team by calling CUPD dispatch. Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone.

Incident Reporting: Immediately report the incident to the supervisor and complete the EHS online injury/illness report as soon as possible.

Medical Follow-Up:

  • For students, seek medical attention at Cornell Health or a local primary care provider. Call Cornell Health at 607-255-5155 (24-hour phone consultation line) or local urgent care. 

  • For faculty and staff, seek a medical evaluation with a local primary care provider or urgent care. Cornell Health does not see employees for post-exposure care. 
  • Emergencies: Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone. 

Cornell EHS would like to thank Emory University for the use of their Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS) format and some content.