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Risks remain high at bioterror labs, agencies say

Mar. 25, 2013 - 08:28AM   |  

The United States is at increased risk for accidents at laboratories conducting research on potential bioterror germs, such as anthrax, because federal officials have failed to develop national standards for lab design, construction and operation, according to a report to be released Monday by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO called for the standards more than three years ago.

Meanwhile, another recent government audit has found significant failures by federal officials to detect security and safety violations during inspections of bioterror labs. Undetected issues included the transfer of anthrax and plague to an unauthorized facility, and allowing workers at multiple research facilities to remain on the job with expired security risk assessments.

“As a result, there is increased risk of the misuse of select agents and the potential for serious security violations going undetected,” says the November 2012 report by inspector general auditors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Security at bioterror labs has been an issue of particular concern since the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five and sickened 17; a scientist at an Army biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md., was later implicated.

USDA inspection program officials disputed many of the auditors’ findings, called the report’s language “unduly alarming,” and refused to adopt many of the auditors’ recommendations, the report says. In a statement, spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole said that in January the inspection program agreed to address all of the auditors’ concerns. Cole said “our inspections are effective at identifying deficiencies.”

The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) share responsibility for inspecting labs at about 350 government, academic and commercial organizations registered to work with dangerous germs and toxins that have bioterror potential.

The USDA was put in charge of inspecting labs operated by the CDC last summer, in the wake of previous reports about safety and security problems at CDC labs in Atlanta.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., House Committee on Energy and Commerce chairman, called the USDA inspector general’s findings “very troubling.” He said the committee will be investigating.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee’s top Democrat, said: “It is troubling that safety and security risks that were identified years ago have still not been fixed, and that the USDA IG has identified additional new vulnerabilities.”

The CDC said: “The public should be confident that the critical research ... is done in a safe and secure manner.”

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