Lack Of Supervision At Biodefense Labs Stirs Debate
Since Sept. 11, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on research to protect the public from an invisible but devastating threat: biological attack.
But a lack of supervision over the hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists now handling deadly germs — as demonstrated by recent problems at Texas A&M University — has put the country at higher risk for dangerous disease outbreaks than before 2001, federal investigators told The Dallas Morning News.
“The labs are pretty much overseeing themselves at this point,” Keith Rhodes, an investigator with the Government Accountability Office, said this month. “I would have to say we are at greater risk today” of an infectious disease epidemic.
Biological weapons watchdogs say there’s no end in sight to the biodefense research spree.
The Bush administration and federal agencies have given a green light to construction of 90 more acres of lab space, experts say — equivalent to about 36 Wal-Mart stores — to experiment with pathogens such as Ebola, anthrax and the avian flu.
With more researchers, more private labs and more university campuses across the country authorized to handle these diseases, they say, the chance of an epidemic, by mistake or by a rogue insider, is higher than that of a terrorist attack.
“It’s like we’re building labs and hoping the germs will come,” says Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chaired a congressional hearing this month on biodefense labs and the disease exposures at Texas A&M that helped bring national attention to the issue, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Homeland Security officials, who lawmakers say turned down an invitation to testify at the congressional hearing, vehemently disagree.
They acknowledge the federal program is growing fast and is divided among many agencies, but they say these layers provide greater oversight, not less. They and supportive lawmakers say the research, which rarely leads to accidental illness, is essential to protect the United States from real biological threats — those created by terrorists, and those existing naturally in the environment.
The A&M breaches uncovered this spring — including the university’s failure to report one illness and several infections in its labs for more than a year — are unfortunate but isolated, officials say. A&M has had its research suspended pending safety upgrades.
“What you do is, you balance the risk,” says Dr. John Vitko, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s chemical and biological division. “It is, in my mind, much more prudent to be prepared.”