In the past year, there has been a series of mishaps involving both the Pentagon and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “accidentally” shipping live biohazards like anthrax around the country and the world, a leak of which could have infected hundreds of Americans.
Now, the Obama Administration appears to be more concerned about “accidental” intentional releases of deadly bioterror pathogens by “insiders” working at government labs.
As reported by USA Today, five years ago, President Obama ordered facilities to better scrutinize employees who have access to the most deadly microbes. His goal, the paper said, was to create a set of rules to prevent another incident similar to the 2001 anthrax letter attacks – or worse.
Now, however, federal regulators have secretly threatened to take away from six labs permits allowing them to study bioterror pathogens – including labs operated by Brigham Young University in Utah, the California Department of Public Health and the University of Hawaii at Manoa – because they have not taken required steps to gauge the trustworthiness and behavior of their employees, as well as additional safety violations, according to records reviewed by USA Today.
The paper, in online editions, further reported:
In a letter to Brigham Young University, regulators said last year that they had “significant concerns” whether its lab staff could work with potential bioterror pathogens “in a manner which does not endanger public health and safety.” California’s Health Department lab in Richmond allowed unapproved staff to have key cards that let them into restricted areas and “failed to address safety issues over the course of the last four years,” regulators told the lab.
In addition, the University of Hawaii was cited by regulators in a separate letter that the administration and institution tried to keep secret for “widespread regulatory non-compliance” and “a serious disregard” for security, biosafety, incident response and training regulations. Also, issues at the college included the failure to properly vet key lab staff, installing a security system but failing to make it operational, and for retaining lab staff who did not know how to use respiratory protection that is necessary to prevent their exposure to infectious agents.
Officials at three of the labs would not speak on the record with the paper. However, in email responses they said all violations cited by federal regulators had been corrected.
Officials from Brigham Young said that security at their lab, as well as the other violations involving administrative issues like failing to comply with regulations mandating language in their records documenting procedures, were the primary reasons for the sanctions.
It’s not clear how significant the cited violations are because so much of the oversight process for the labs that are working with “select agents” – government-speak for potential bioterrorism pathogens like anthrax and those that cause botulism and plague – remains secret. Also, lab regulators at the CDC would not answer questions as well.
USA Today further reported that some 100 labs participating in the Federal Select Agent Program, which is operated jointly by the CDC and the Department of Agriculture, have been cited for security and vetting violations since 2003, though the government would not identify which labs were sanctioned.
But clearly the government is concerned that accident-on-purpose releases of deadly pathogens is enough of a possibility that it is cracking down on violations of protocol and regulatory policy among labs handling such deadly material.
The samples were reportedly thought to be dead and were therefore shipped under less stringent conditions than they would normally have been subjected to had the senders known the samples were actually live.
Defense Department officials were told that there was no risk to the general public from shipping containers. Nevertheless, four workers across nine states that received the shipments were treated as though they had been exposed to live samples because they handled the containers.