The White House is asking federally funded labs studying infectious agents to take “immediate action” to inventory samples and review safety and security procedures in the wake of several high-profile accidents earlier this year.
The directive, a memo sent to federal agencies on 19 August but only posted online today, allays fears in the academic community that nongovernment microbiologists might be ordered to stop work for 24 hours and conduct an inventory. Although the memo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) uses the term “stand-down,” it says explicitly that the review should not disrupt ongoing work. And none of the steps are mandatory for extramural labs with federal funding.
The memo is a response to “three recent U.S. biosafety and biosecurity incidents” that have been widely publicized: the mistaken shipment of live anthrax samples by a biodefense lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta; the discovery of 60-year-old vials of smallpox on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in suburban Maryland; and the accidental contamination at CDC of benign poultry flu samples with the deadly H5N1 bird flu. CDC has already announced sweeping changes to improve safety, and the OSTP memo aims to “maximize the positive effect of lessons learned” across the U.S. government.