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Rabies Virus Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS) for Researchers

Updated December 4th, 2023
Disclaimer: Risk group, biosafety level, and all other precautions noted here are subject to change after a risk assessment by EHS.


Agent Type Risk Group Biosafety Level Animal Housing Biosafety Level
Virus RG-2 BSL-2 enhanced ABSL-2

Agent Characteristics

Risk Group: RG-2 associated with serious or lethal human disease; preventive or therapeutic interventions may be available.

Agent Type: Virus

Description: Rabies is a zoonotic disease caused by RNA viruses in the Family  Rhabdoviridae, Genus Lyssavirus. The virus is typically present in the saliva of infected mammals and is transmitted through a bite or contact with brain tissue, cerebrospinal fluids, or saliva. After entering the central nervous system of the next host, the virus causes an acute, progressive encephalomyelitis.  Once the clinical signs of rabies infection manifest themselves, the disease cannot be cured or treated and is nearly always fatal.

Host Range: Mammals, including humans                            Host Shedding: Saliva

Route of Exposure to Humans: Aerosol/Inhalation, Direct Contact, Mucous Membranes, Percutaneous (Animal bites)

Infectious Dose: Unknown

Incubation Period: The incubation period in humans is usually several weeks to months, but can range from days to years.

Health Hazards

Signs and symptoms of infection may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever, headache, dehydration, weight loss, lethargy)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (i.e. loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Respiratory symptoms (i.e. coughing, sneezing)
  • Neurological symptoms (i.e. loss of sensation, ataxia)
  • Reproductive Health concerns (i.e. abortion, fetal abnormalities)

Immunizations: Available at Cornell Health                           Prophylaxis*: Available

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

Agent Viability

Survival Outside Host Disinfection Inactivation

This virus does not survive well outside its host (in dried blood and secretions) as it is susceptible to sunlight and desiccation.

1: 10 Bleach solution followed by 70% ethanol

4% chlorhexidine scrub 

3% Hydrogen Peroxide for 2 hours

For more guidance on disinfection see disinfectant selection.

Laboratory Hazards

  • High energy-creating activities (centrifugation, sonication, high-pressure systems, vortexing, tube cap popping)
  • Handling of sharps (needles, scalpels, microtome blades, broken glass, etc.)
  • Splash/droplet-creating activities (shaking incubators, liquid culturing, mechanical pipetting)
  • Equipment contamination
  • Exposed skin/uncovered wounds

Laboratory Acquired Infection (LAI) History: Two cases of laboratory-acquired rabies infections have been reported and are thought to have been acquired via aerosolized virus across mucous membranes. No cases of laboratory-acquired infections have been reported in the last several decades. Pre-exposure vaccination is necessary for any individuals working in the laboratory with the live virus or diagnostic specimens.

Laboratory Handling Guidelines

Laboratory Biosafety Level (BSL): BSL-2
Laboratory practices may change depending on risk assessment. Additional primary containment and personnel precautions, such as those described for BSL-3, are indicated for activities with high potential for droplet or aerosol production, or for work with large volumes of virus.


Lab Engineering Controls Personal Protective Equipment
  • Eye Protection
  • Single gloves
  • Additional gloves
  • Snap-front lab coat with cinch cuffs

Waste Management: Regulated Medical Waste (RMW)

Shipping Guidance: Refer to EHS Biological Materials Shipping

Animal Vivarium Guidance

Animal Housing Biosafety Level (ABSL): ABSL-2

Animal Biosecurity: Experimental animals are housed separately

Perform Inoculations: Biosafety Cabinet

Change Cages: Biosafety Cabinet

Recombinant Rabies Viral Vectors

Replication-deficient rabies vectors are useful tools for investigation into targeted expression in neurons and neuronal trafficking. Examples of modified rabies viruses include SADdG-mCherry/EnvASADdG. To ensure the virus is replication deficient, the gene encoding the viral envelope B19 glycoprotein is deleted resulting in the virus being unable to produce competent or infectious particles in transduced cells. Furthermore, the modified virus can be pseudotyped to prevent it from infecting mammalian cells. Through altering the tropism of the virus, the virus is unable to infect any mammalian cells except those that express a genetically specified neuronal population transgene that encodes the envelope receptor. 

Agent Type Risk Group Biosafety Level Animal Housing Biosafety Level
Virus RG-2 BSL-2  ABSL-1/ABSL-2

Biosafety Level: BSL-2 

Animal Biosafety Level: ABSL-2 conditions, perform inoculations in the biosafety cabinet. There are opportunities to discuss reducing the animal biosafety level to ABSL-1 depending upon the rabies viral vector used. Prior to reducing biosafety level, a clear risk assessment for the experiments needs to be performed with the assessment of the EHS Biosafety Group.

Laboratory Hazards/Potential Routes of Exposure: Aerosol inhalation, injection, exposure of mucus membrane, or exposure to a pre-existing wound. Take necessary precautions to avoid needle sticks and avoid creating aerosols. 

Immunization: Consultation is available to determine if vaccination is appropriate for personnel working with recombinant rabies vectors.

Field Research Guidance

When conducting work involving wild or feral reservoir animals including cats, dogs, bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes or in areas where such animals may be present:

  • Bare-handed contact is prohibited, disposable gloves are required to be worn
  • Consider cut resistant gloves underneath rubber, nitrile, latex, vinyl, or PVC gloves
  • Hands must be washed (or antimicrobial gel/hand sanitizer used) after handling animals and removing gloves
  • Eye protection must be worn when handling animals to prevent splashes of saliva into the eyes
  • A fully stocked first aid kit must be maintained at all times.
    • First aid kit must include antiseptic or antiseptic impregnated sterile pads, sterile gauze pads, adhesive medical tape, bandages, and protective gloves at a minimum.
    • Encourage all personnel to be trained in basic first aid techniques. Consider whether Wilderness First Aid and/or Wilderness First Responder training may be appropriate for your field safety study.
  • All personnel should be trained on general rabies hazard awareness and exposure-response procedures

For more information about field research safety, see ACUP 718.03

Exposure Procedures

Mucous Membranes: If saliva from a reservoir animal host or feral animal contacts the eyes, mouth, or nose, flush the affected area for 15 minutes at an eyewash station. See: responding to exposures.

Bite Wound Treatment:

  • Wash with soap and warm water for 15 minutes
  • Encourage the wound to bleed without massaging directly then apply pressure to control bleeding if necessary
  • Once bleeding has stopped or slowed sufficiently, apply povidone-iodine or other virucidal antiseptic liberally to the wound
  • Contact a medical professional as soon as possible for treatment and administration of post-exposure prophylaxis

If it is possible to do so safely, capture the animal for submission to Tompkins County Health for testing.

Small Spills: Notify others working in the lab. Don appropriate PPE. For spills involving fecal material, cover area of the spill with paper towels, working from the perimeter toward the center, use the paper towels to remove the spill and associated organic material. Discard contaminated paper towels. For spills involving fecal material and all other spills apply (or re-apply) 6% hydrogen peroxide on the spill site, Allow 20 minutes of contact time. After 20 minutes use paper towels to remove the 6% hydrogen peroxide. 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. Also report the incident to the Tompkins County Health Department.

Medical Follow-Up:

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