Risk of Accidents Too Great at U.S. Bioterror Labs: Report

Mike O'Brien

U.S. laboratories that carry out research on bioterror germs such as anthrax are at an unacceptable risk of accidents because there are no uniform building and operation standards, a Congressional investigative group reports.

The Government Accountability Office said federal officials have failed to develop national standards, even though the GAO called for their implementation three years ago.

The report, released on Monday, said: "This deficiency may be more critical today than three years ago because current budget constraints make prioritization essential."

Security at bioterror labs has been a hot issue since the 9/11 atrocities and the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people in the U.S. and left 17 sick.

A U.S. government scientist who worked at an Army biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, was implicated in the attack, but he killed himself before the case could go to court.

Monday’s report said: "GAO found a continued lack of national standards for the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of high-containment laboratories.

"In the absence of some fundamental criteria, each laboratory can be designed, constructed, and maintained according to local requirements. This will make it difficult to be able to assess and guarantee safety, as we noted in our 2009 report."

The GAO called on the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to "ensure that periodic assessments of national biodefense research and development needs are conducted," Agence France Presse revealed.

The report comes just five months after a study by inspector general auditors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed security lapses at bioterror labs.

The audit found significant failures by federal officials to detect violations that included the transfer of anthrax to an unauthorized facility, and the presence of workers at multiple research facilities who remained on the job with expired security risk assessments, USA Today reports.

"As a result, there is increased risk of the misuse of select agents and the potential for serious security violations going undetected," the USDA report concluded.

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