Report: Public health threat lurking at biolabs nationwide
- An investigative report from USA Today finds that the 200-plus biolabs nationwide are rife with lapses in protocol that could threaten the entire population.
- The types of protocol violations are as numerous as the number of ongoing experiments and involve Ebola, the MERS virus, bird flu, anthrax contamination, escaped virally infected rodents, vaccine-injected cattle meat unintentionally introduced into the human food chain and many other hazards.
- The number of biolabs, which are focused on addressing potential bioterrorist threats, have proliferated since 9-11-2001. However, there is very little regulatory oversight and a set of policies that are inconsistent and fragmented.
The USDA and the CDC have combined responsibility for oversight of the 200-plus biolabs across the nation, yet according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), oversight is insufficient, leading to a highly dangerous situation in which near-misses are the norm. Despite the fact that the USDA conducts investigations and issues fines in response to protocol violationas at biolabs, there are so many lapses and so much secrecy, that full-scale regulatory oversight is almost impossible.
And it's not just the mistakes that public officials are worried about. One major concern is the intentional theft and release of deadly pathogens, such as occurred with the anthrax letter attacks in 2001. Worst-case scenarios involving mistakes in labs include the reemergence of the H1N1 virus in the 1970's---a virus that had been identified and contained in the 1950's, and has since become a challenge worldwide.
The takeaway is that biolabs, especially level 3 and level 4 biolabs where the most secretive, dangerous work is conducted, represent major public health threats. However, bioterrorism is a very real threat and needs to be addressed. More oversight and attention to detail is needed to avert a bio-catastrophe.