Packaging, labeling and dispatch of specimens

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Packaging, labeling and dispatch of specimens

The packaging, labeling and dispatch of specimens are regulated by UN and contained in the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) regulations and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations. Under this regulation, specimens are classified into diagnostic specimens and infectious substances which are respectively under regulation 650 and 602.

WHO developed a guideline for transport of infectious substances and diagnostic specimens that can be downloaded from this website: WHO/EMC/97.3

For the transport of diagnostic specimens (650) the following rules must be respected 
  • Diagnostic specimens must be packaged in screw-cap containers of suitable size, with labels,
  • After tightening the cap, sealing tape must be applied over the cap and top of the tube. Sealing can be done with Parafilm or water-proof plastic tape,
  • The sealed tube must be placed in a plastic bag with a small amount of absorbent material such as cotton wool. The bag must be sealed using a heated bag sealer or waterproof adhesive tape, or ziplock plastic bag,
  • All specimens should be double bagged in sealed plastic bags. Two or more sealed specimens from the same animal can be placed in a larger bag and sealed. Specimens from different patients should never be sealed in the same bag,
  • Double sealed bags (6 to 10) should be placed inside a sealed plastic container with absorbent material,
  • Sealed plastic container should be fitted into insulated containers (polystyrene) with a fiberboard outer packaging resisting to 1.2m drop. The insulated container and outer packaging must conform to IATA Dangerous Goods Regulation Packaging Instruction 650. The package should contain frozen ice packs, but should not contain dry ice (specific regulation for dry ice). Styrofoam boxes, plastic bags and paper envelopes are unacceptable outer containers.
  • The maximum volume that can be legally packed in a single package is 500mL which is approximately 300 serum samples,
  • The inside of the insulated container should be packed with additional materials to prevent the plastic container from moving around during transport,
  • Specimens packaged in this way do not require a Declaration of Dangerous Goods, but the airway bill must include: " Diagnostic specimens packed in compliance with IATA packing instruction 650",
  • The outside of the package should be marked with:
    • "Diagnostic specimens - Not restricted"
    • "Packed in compliance with IATA packing instruction 650"
    • Shipper's name and address,
    • Consignee's name and address,
    • Sense of carrying "This side up" or "This end up",
    • In addition, import permit and inventory of containment can be attached to the box.
  • The box should be sealed using wide sealing tape, taking care not to obscure the labels with the tape.
  • WHO WPRO supplies appropriate packaging material to laboratories that require it.

Fresh and preserved specimens should be packed separately, where possible, in separate containers.

Freezing and thawing can have an adverse affect on survival of viruses and bacteria. Generally, specimens for isolation of virus or bacteria are best forwarded to the laboratory chilled rather than frozen. They should be packed in insulated containers with ice or frozen gel packs. However if delays in reaching the laboratory of more than 24–48 hours are anticipated then they should be frozen and packed with dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide).

Specific packaging and labeling instruction apply to specimen sent with dry ice (see WHO/EMC/97.3).

Labeling of specimen containers

Each specimen should be labeled with a property or owner identification, animal number or some other identifier, the type of specimen and the date of collection. The labeling should be clear and legible even if the outside of the container becomes wet. It is possible to code label on the specimen (vial, tubes..) and to report the code on an inventory and the submission form with the full details.


The container should contain an inventory of the specimens sent and the submission form to the laboratory with the full details.


The laboratory must be contacted enough time before the shipping in order to help with:
  • The availability of the diagnostic tests to be used,
  • The categorisation of the specimens, and possibly the supply of proper shipping containers, and submission forms
  • The issue of the import permit.

When the date of shipment is confirmed the laboratory should be contacted for the reception of the specimens.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has developed agreements and protocols for submitting specimens to overseas laboratories. Contact the SPC Regional Animal Health Service for advice on organising the necessary permits and clearances.

  • Internation Air Transport Authority, 2002
  • Institut Pasteur, 2002
  • Office International des Epizooties, 2002
  • WHO/EMC/ DIS/97.3 World Health Organisation, 2002