The Associated Press (AP) recently reported (2 October 2007) that American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, including the transmission of bird flu to a lab technician from an infected ferret’s bite and a missing shipment of the plague that was to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The AP reports that the number of accidents is only increasing as the number of biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 laboratories that work with the deadly organisms and toxins continues to increase.

BSL-3 labs can house agents and toxins that have the potential for aerosol transmission and may cause serious and potentially lethal infection, although in some cases vaccines or effective treatments are available. Agents handled in BSL-3 labs include anthrax, West Nile Virus, and avian flu. BSL-4 labs handle agents and toxins that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may also be aerosol transmitted and for which there is no vaccine or therapy. These include Ebola, hemorrhagic fevers, and smallpox.

In response to concerns about the increased incidence of accidents involving infectious agents and the potential threat of bioterrorism, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on 4 October 2007, “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States.”

Officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the expansion of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place across the country in many sectors, including federal, state, academic, and private. However, the GAO investigators revealed that no single federal agency is explicitly tasked with tracking or coordinating biosafety labs and determining their associated risk, despite the fact that 12 federal agencies have some connection with BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in the United States. Further, oversight of the high-containment labs is fragmented and relies on self-policing. Officials indicated that although they know of 15 BSL-4 labs (with one in the planning stage), the total number of BSL-3 labs is unknown; only those labs that are registered with the CDC-USDA Select Agents program or are federally funded are known.

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) pointedly asked the witnesses, which included senior officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, “Has the proliferation of these labs reached a point at which there are so many labs doing this research that you actually increase the chances of a catastrophic release of a deadly disease?”

 


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