Select Agent Snafus May be Biohazardous to Your Health

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) recalls an unnerving visit to an old Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Ft. Collins years ago—she observed modular storage units containing West Nile virus samples sitting behind the building, grass growing up into them, and insects flying around.

It’s the kind of mishandling she and other members of a House subcommittee have seen over and over again. Following another critical report issued last week, the Energy and Science Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee looked into continued problems with the program that regulates the use and transfer of dangerous pathogens and toxins.

Slipups at labs that conduct research on biological “select agents” and toxins continue, the General Accountability Office said in its report, including FEMA’s repeated receipt of toxic ricin at a training center, DOD’s shipment of live anthrax to scores of labs around the world, and NIH’s discovery of smallpox vials in an FDA storage room.

“I’ve been on this subcommittee and active in these investigations for over 15 years, and it’s just clear that things have been slipping through,” DeGette, the committee’s ranking member, told reporters following a Nov. 2 hearing.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we haven’t had any serious public health emergencies as a result of these errors but we could have,” she added.

The two agencies that run the Federal Select Agent Program—Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Health and Human Service’s CDC—need to make sure they are sufficiently independent from the labs they inspect, the report says. In many instances, the fox guards the henhouse, with APHIS and CDC inspecting their own agencies’ facilities, raising conflict of interest concerns.

They also need to focus on lab activities posing the greatest risk of accidental exposure and develop a workforce plan to address employee retention and expertise concerns, according to the report.

“There will never be zero risk, unfortunately,” said Mary Denigan-Macauley, acting director of the GAO’s health care division, “but we do believe strongly that the oversight needs to be strengthened to prevent these safety lapses from happening.”

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