GAO report: lack of standards makes containment labs risky

By Bryan Richardson

A continued lack of national standards places the United States at increased risk for accidents at high-containment laboratories, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Monday.

This report was a follow-up to a 2009 GAO report, which called for national standards relating to designing, constructing, commissioning, maintaining and operating high-containment laboratories. A laboratory is considered high-containment if it’s a biosafety level (BSL)-3 or BSL-4 facility.

Manhattan is the future site of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, a BSL-4 facility that would replace Plum Island Animal Disease Center as the nation’s lead facility for large animal disease research. The Biosecurity Research Institute, a BSL-3 facility, is currently in operation at the K-State campus.

The report uses a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) power failure incident in Atlanta as an example for the need for national standards.

In an investigation, the CDC determined that a critical grounding cable buried in the ground outside the building had been cut by construction workers digging at an adjacent site, compromising the electrical system of the facility that housed the BSL-4 laboratory.

Standard procedures under local building codes did not require monitoring of the integrity of the new BSL-4 facility’s electrical grounding.

“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 report said.

The GAO also said the nation’s need for high-containment laboratories is still unknown, which is critical due to the current budget constraints.

The report references a 2012 National Academy of Sciences report that said there’s a critical need for NBAF, but the GAO mentioned its $1.14 billion price tag as a difficulty in meeting that need.

“However, faced with the nation’s current budget constraints, achieving that research priority could be in doubt,” the GAO report said.

Monday’s report recommends that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) examine the need to establish national standards as well as ensure that periodic assessments of national biodefense research and development needs are conducted.

No NBAF in Kansas, a local advocacy group against building the facility on the mainland, has used a 2008 GAO report that said there’s a lack of evidence that foot-and-mouth disease research can be done safety on the U.S. mainland as its basis for their position.

Bill Dorsett, a spokesperson for the group, said the lack of standards is troublesome because DHS has shown itself to be a “dishonest broker” concerning NBAF. He pointed to the 2008 GAO report as well as the National Academy of Sciences committees that haven’t verified the risk assessments done by DHS as adequate.

“If they cherry pick the studies that show it can be done, how does that show the ability to be accountable to the public if something happens?” he asked.

Dorsett said the CDC has a history of problems with the airflow system in the Atlanta laboratory, which is supposed to prevent the release of infectious agents.

The USA Today has done reports this past summer on the CDC airflow problems as well as last month about security lapses at the Atlanta facility. The agency has said no one has been infected due to these issues.

“They keep pointing to the CDC operating fine in a big city like Atlanta, but it’s not obviously,” Dorsett said.

Dorsett said things can often go unreported due to people not wanting to fill out paperwork or fear that an incident can lead to funding reduction and the loss of a job.

“It’s human nature for people to try to cover their backsides,” he said. “It’s not so much about wanting to be dishonest.”

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