This image from a CDC Q&A page shows an electron micrograph of Ebola virus.

Security Improved at U.S. Biosafety Labs, GAO Reports

But the two senators who introduced legislation on Sept. 8 to strengthen security and federal oversight of the six laboratories say the labs remain vulnerable.

Following up its September 2008 report that perimeter security was deficient at two of the five biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories then operating in the United States, an investigator from the Government Accountability Office told members of a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday that both have made improvements. The chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee warned, however, that the labs -- six are now in operation -- still do not have adequate perimeter security in place and said their Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act, S. 1649, will make needed changes.

Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the bill Sept. 8. Gregory Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations for GAO, testified during a hearing on the bill Tuesday. He said the two labs have fixed some of the critical perimeter security shortcomings identified last September, including lack of a command and control center, no camera coverage of some exterior entrances, armed guards not visible at all entrances, no screening of vehicles, and no barriers in place to prevent vehicles from approaching the labs.

Workers at these labs handle infectious materials requiring the highest level of containment, including Ebola and smallpox viruses. All five are overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the new GAO report submitted in conjunction with Kutz's testimony says CDC has taken steps to improve security at the labs.

Lieberman said S. 1649 emphasizes prevention, preparedness, and response to a WMD attack. "Anyone who thinks we are being overly zealous, imagining threats that don't really exist, should look to the arrest this week of two men in the U.S. who apparently were directly tied to al Qaeda and who apparently were planning an attack in the New York area," he said. "Terrorists want to do us great harm, and they know that a biological weapon could devastate American society. Our legislation would prevent and prepare for WMD attacks and bioterrorism in particular. Most importantly, our legislation would heighten security at labs working on the world's most dangerous pathogens and improve our government's ability to distribute vaccines and antibiotics quickly. We seek to raise our level of preparedness and minimize the consequences of an attack, thus deterring terrorists from attacking in the first place."

"Clearly, the threat of terrorism is real, urgent, and evolving," Collins said. "Despite this threat, some of the world's most dangerous pathogens are not secure. The fact is that thousands of people in the United States have access to dangerous pathogens. More than 400 research facilities and nearly 15,000 individuals are on the Select Agent List, an authorization to handle the most deadly pathogens, and the FBI determined that a cleared scientist at a regulated research lab most likely carried out the 2001 anthrax attacks on the Senate and the U.S. postal system."

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a co-chair of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, testified at the hearing that the commission will issue an interim progress report next month on steps that have been taken to defend against a WMD attack.

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