Since the still-unsolved anthrax attacks in 2001, a fear of germs that might be used as weapons has led to an explosion of high-security U.S. research labs. But in a harsh critique, a government auditor told Congress today that the uncontrolled expansion of new biocontainment facilities has itself made the country more vulnerable to accidents and bioterrorism. Federal officials agreed that they need to take steps to improve safety.
The hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations was held in response to an unreported Brucella infection and other safety violations at Texas A & M University in College Station. The problems led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, to suspend the school's biodefense research in June. The incidents and a spate of other accidents and near-misses revealed through public records requests by the Sunshine Project, an activist group in Austin, Texas, have raised concerns about safety and security at biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs, which study deadly pathogens for which there is no treatment, as well as biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, which handle less risky bugs. “We must ask if all these labs are necessary,” said Bart Stupak (D-MI), the subcommittee chair.
Even an exact count of the high-security labs is hard to come by. In a report requested by the committee, Keith Rhodes of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, although no single agency tracks BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs, by its count there are five existing BSL-4 labs and 10 more under construction or planned. Because these labs and thousands of new BSL-3 labs mean more new workers and more dangerous pathogens in labs, "I would say we're are at greater risk" for accidents and misuse, Rhodes said, adding that the FBI and intelligence agencies told GAO investigators that they share those concerns. He suggested that one agency should oversee all the labs.
The panel also examined weaknesses in biosafety rules. Although CDC inspects labs handling pathogens that could be used as bioweapons--which are known as select agents--the agency does not oversee labs working on infectious agents not on the select agent list, such as SARS, hantavirus, and dengue. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases deputy director Hugh Auchincloss said agencies plan to form an interagency task force to improve biosafety oversight. CDC official Richard Besser also expressed support for creating an accident reporting system, like those used by NASA and the aviation industry, that would allow labs to share experiences without being punished. And Besser endorsed the idea of a national assessment to analyze whether all the labs are needed.
One lawmaker expressed concern that too much regulation could stifle research. Michael Burgess (R-TX) noted the research community's remarkable success at identifying and stopping the spread of the SARS coronovirus in 2003. "I don't want to see us do anything that would rob us of that ability," he said.
Newly revealed information about accidents have fueled concerns. Since 2003, labs that work with select agents have been required to register with the CDC. Since then, 105 potential releases, losses, and thefts have been reported. Earlier this week, the Associated Press published details on those incidents, which included animal bites, needle sticks and lost samples. Three incidents resulted in five workers becoming ill, according to Besser's testimony.
The panel will hold two more hearings, Stupak said. One will examine BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in other countries. The other will focus on the possible closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, the U.S. laboratory where the most dangerous animal pathogens are studied.