October 17, 2008

Government Lacks Security At Biodefense Laboratories

A new government report warns that intruders could easily break into U.S. biodefense labs because there is an apparent lack of security.

Citizens and lawmakers are now asking if its time for the Bush administration's Biowarfare defense program to be put on halt, saying the program has expanded too fast and security measures have not caught up.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration decided that the nation needed to develop cures, drug treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests to combat germs that could be used in a terrorist attack.

U.S. officials say there are no known incidents of outsiders using germs from a U.S. lab for an attack. However, the FBI concluded last summer that an Army microbiologist's lab in Ft. Detrick, Md. was responsible for anthrax attacks in 2001.

The most recent government study suggests that intruders could easily break into two laboratories handling organisms that could cause illnesses with no cure.

The two vulnerable lab locations are Atlanta and San Antonio. The labs were not identified by the Government Accountability Office, except that they were Biosafety 4 facilities.

The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, in Texas, features an outside window that looks directly into the room where the deadly germs are handled.  The lab also lacks sufficient security cameras, alarms or visible armed guards. 

"We already have an initiative under way to look at perimeter security," said Kenneth Trevett, president of the lab in San Antonio. "We're waiting for additional input but we're not waiting long. The GAO would like us to do some fairly significant things. They would like us to do it sooner rather than later."

The lab in Atlanta is operated by the Georgia State University.  This lab lacks complete security barriers and integrated security systems.  During their review, investigators said they watched an unidentified pedestrian enter the building through an unguarded loading dock.

"Georgia State clearly wants its BSL-4 to be as safe as possible," said DeAnna Hines, assistant vice president for university relations. "We are already taking steps that will enhance the lab's safety and security standards." Hines did not confirm the school's research lab was the one mentioned in the congressional report as lacking proper security.

Beth Willis, a member of the citizen group from Frederick, Md. near Ft. Detrick, said, "We understand we're not going to make the labs go away but we have a lot of concerns about safety.

"Biomedical research is very important. We're not saying it all should stop. We are saying the size and scale of the ramp-up with pathogens, considered by the government to be biowarfare pathogens, is a dangerous thing," Willis said. "It's an opportunity to say, 'time out', and address this."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, repeated his call this week for a suspension of further design and construction of all biodefense laboratories until security problems are fixed.

"We found that many of the labs are probably unnecessary or redundant. Shockingly, the Government Accountability Office reported that no one in the government even knows the total number of BSL (Biosafety Level) 3 and 4 labs currently in existence.

"Ironically, their proliferation has only exacerbated the potential risk of a terrorist incident or accidental release, not enhanced our nation's security."

BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories are those handling the most dangerous germs and toxins and requiring the most stringent security. The BSL-4 labs handle organisms that cause diseases without a cure. They include ebola, marburg, junin and lassa viruses.


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