Dingell Uneasy About Biosafety Labs' Proliferation

"A major proliferation" of high-containment biosafety labs is under way across the United States, with at least 46 states having a BSL-3 level state public health lab and 15 BSL-4 labs, which handle the most dangerous agents, in existence, up from only three in 2000, the Government Accountability Office reported recently. GAO found that no federal agency tracks the overall number of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, and no one agency knows the number and location of all of them.

The report (www.gao.gov/new.items/d08108t.pdf) was presented to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. GAO posted it Oct. 4. The report notes that only two BSL-4 labs existed before 1990, and they were federal facilities at Fort Detrick, Md. and at CDC's headquarters in Atlanta. The 10 BSL-4 labs built since then including four owned by universities, one state lab, and one privately funded lab in San Antonio.

"Do we really need 12 laboratories that operate at the very highest level of security? Is there a good reason for creating these labs, or have we simply begun an arms race against ourselves?" powerful Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., asked in a statement following the report's presentation.

GAO's report identifies six lessons drawn from three recent incidents involving these types of labs. One was Texas A&M University's failure to timely report a lab worker's exposure to Brucella, another was a power outage at CDC's new BSL-4 lab in Atlanta, and the third was a release of foot-and-mouth disease virus at a British lab. The six lessons highlight the importance of: identifying and overcoming barriers to reporting, training lab staff in general biosafety and specific agents being used in their labs, developing ways to inform medical providers about all agents with which lab staff are working, addressing confusion over the definition of exposure to aid in consistency of reporting, ensuring BSL-4 labs' safety and security measures match the level of risk they represent, and maintenance of the labs to ensure the integrity of the physical infrastructure over time.

Dingell's statement suggests the DHS plan to close and relocate the Plum Island Animal Disease Center from Orient Point, N.Y., is one reason the subcommittee is investigating the proliferation of these labs. The release of foot-and-mouth virus here would be devastating to the U.S. livestock industry, said Dingell. "Why then would DHS propose to move this Level-3 biolab that works on the most dangerous animal diseases in the world from Plum Island to the heart of farm country?" he added. "I look forward to this committee's investigation of the Plum Island issue as part of this series of hearings on biosafety laboratories."

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