Federal oversight of high-containment laboratories where researchers study dangerous microbes continues to fall short, putting people, animals, and the food supply at risk from biological agents that may escape from such facilities, said the authors of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today.
Biosafety level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 laboratories are used to develop medical and veterinary countermeasures against dangerous and deadly biological agents and to research the risks these agents pose. The growth in the number of these laboratories accelerated after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001, but development of a national strategy for constructing and operating such facilities is lacking, the GAO reported.
This is not the first time the GAO has raised concerns about high-containment laboratories. In a 2009 report, the agency found that no single federal agency was responsible for assessing overall needs for such facilities, noting that departments and agencies only assessed laboratory needs that were within the scope of their respective missions. In addition, the GAO said that national standards for laboratory design, construction, commissioning, operations, and maintenance were lacking, raising concerns about the increased risk of unintentional release of dangerous biological agents. The GAO recommended implementing a national strategy for oversight, including periodic assessments of the nation’s need for these labs.
In today’s report, the GAO said the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) rejected the need for a single entity to be charged with government-wide strategic evaluation of high-containment laboratories, saying such assessment was unnecessarily broad and cumbersome. The OSTP did support periodic, government-wide assessments of national biodefense research and development needs.
“There is still no one agency or group that knows the nation’s need for all US high-containment laboratories, including the research priorities and the capacity, number and location, to address priorities,” the GAO authors wrote. “This deficiency may be more critical today than 3 years ago because current budget constraints make prioritization essential.”