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Security breaches threaten U.S. biodefense labs

Security breaches threaten U.S. biodefense labs

This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A spate of laboratory scares and controversies could downsize America’s biodefense network — tightening security and, perhaps, saving money.

The U.S. spent $19 billion expanding biodefense research during the past decade. The number of top-security labs jumped from 415 to 1,495, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But with no national assessment of how many labs are actually needed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says fewer may be better.

“One of the things that we want to do is reduce the number of laboratories that work with dangerous agents to the absolute minimum necessary,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said.

“Reduce the number of people who have access to those laboratories to the absolute minimum necessary. Reduce the number of dangerous pathogens we work with,” he said in a statement.

Frieden will testify Wednesday at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said “repeated safety failures raise grave concerns.”

On Monday, a group of scientists raised more red flags.

“Recent incidents involving smallpox, anthrax and bird flu in some of the top U.S. laboratories remind us of the fallibility of even the most secure laboratories, reinforcing the urgent need for a thorough reassessment of biosafety,” said the Cambridge Working Group.

“Such incidents have been accelerating and have been occurring on average over twice a week with regulated pathogens in academic and government labs across the country,” said the statement signed by 16 top U.S. scientists.

Security issues boiled over this month when the CDC admitted to multiple breaches at its labs. The facilities reportedly mishandled anthrax, smallpox and avian flu viruses.

Consolidation of laboratories should save tax dollars and enhance security against bioterrorism.

“With the additional spending, the number of people with access to bioweapons agents increased by a factor of 20 to 40,” Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright told Reuters news service.

The CDC said there were 16 incidents of lost or escaped microbes from select-agent labs in 2004, meaning everything from misplaced samples to an infected researcher walking out the door harboring a virus. That rose to 128 in 2008 and 269 in 2010.

The increase in mishaps mirrors the growth in government-funded laboratories, which universities are eager to host as a way to generate funding and build prestige.

A study by Harvard and Yale scientists found that a moderate research program involving 10 laboratories over a decade runs a 20 percent risk of at least one instance of spreading an infection across the world.

Even in the absence of an accident, top-level research can stir controversy.

The University of Wisconsin garnered international attention this month when one of its leading researchers created an especially resilient strain of the deadly H1N1 influenza virus.

A scientist at the Madison, Wisc., campus called on Yoshihiro Kawaoka to modify the flu viruses to make them less dangerous to humans.

University officials stand by Kawaoka and the integrity of their research program.

“I can assure you we have taken every appropriate (security) measure and multiple outside agencies deem it acceptable,” Rebecca Moritz, select agent program manager at the school’s Office of Biological Safety, told Watchdog.org.

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau.

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