It's no secret the US government is struggling with how to keep track of its many services and their associated costs, but one area is of special concern: high-containment biological laboratories. The labs, used by scientists for researching biological threats such as anthrax and diseases carried by animals, have ballooned in number since the 2001 terror attacks. Unfortunately, the federal government hasn't done a good job keeping track of all of them and the risks they pose. In fact, it doesn't know exactly how many are in operation today, nor how secure they all are.
"This incident highlighted the risks inherent in relying on local building codes."
Those are the grim conclusions of a new report from the Government Accountability Office published today. The report, which follows up on a 2009 review which also found many of the same problems, says that the best, latest estimate of the total number of many high-containment labs in the country is 1,495, and that comes from 2010. The report says that because there is no national standard of security for these labs, they've been built to varying local specifications of security, resulting in several situations at some of these labs that could have been hugely problematic.
In one instance in 2007, construction workers accidentally cut a "critical grounding cable" leading to a power outage at a lab with the highest level of biosafety precautions (BSL-4) at the Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. No biological agent was released, thankfully, but as the report notes: "this incident highlighted the risks inherent in relying on local building codes to ensure the safety of high-containment laboratories, as there are no building codes and testing procedures specifically for those laboratories."
"The risk associated with any single laboratory is non-zero."
The report recommends that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) take control of these labs and set up national standards, but points out this may be made more difficult by recent federal budget cuts. The report also indicates the White House's reluctance to address the problem, saying that the OSTP disagreed that more labs around the US means more risk. "The risk associated with any single laboratory is non-zero," the report concludes, adding, "The risk at each laboratory leads to an overall increased risk with expansion." With the US just restarting funding into bird flu research earlier this year after a safety moratorium, it would probably be a good time to make sure labs containing that research are sound.