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Bio-Security Labs: No News is Good News

October 11, 2007

family in gas masksWell, they’re in the news again.

 I, and others, have worried about the state of our bio-safety labs (specifically BSL-3 and -4) for some time.  After a number of problems at Texas A&M, those fears seemed to be justified.  Late last week, that concern was reflected on Capitol Hill, when the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations listened to testimony from the GAO, CDC, NIH and an NGO called The Sunshine Project.

CIDRAP, as usual, has the complete coverage.  I’ll defer to their excellence in this matter, but want to talk a bit about a side discussion ongoing at one of my favorite homeland security blogs, the Armchair Generalist.

Bugs ‘N Gas Gal, whom we’ve met before, hits the nail on the head with her comment:

My point of view is that we don’t really need so many labs working on so-called bioterror agents in the first place. But the terror boogeyman makes us apt to spend money where we don’t really need to.

Also yes lab accidents do happen fairly regularly, I know this from firsthand experience but the Pirbright incident serves as an example that it actually is possible for someone’s research project to go out and visit the neighbors. I’ve always been extremely skeptical of this scenario but it happened and that’s the reality.

I complained about the issue of these labs on my blog but I really wouldn’t be complaining if the labs weren’t popping up under the guise of biosecurity. Why not more pressing public health threats? Because that’s not what we’re paying for right now, apparently. Our spending priorities are out of whack with our threats.

Before 9/11, we had 5 registered BSL-4 labs, we now have 15.  As for BSL-3 labs, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on even how many there are – the GAO says 1,400, The Sunshine Project says 400, Science magazine says 84.  So, wait, shouldn’t the overseeing agency have the count?

No single federal agency has the mission and, therefore, is accountable for tracking the number of all BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs within the United States. Moreover, although several agencies have a need to know the number and location of these labs to support their missions, no agency knows how many such labs there are in the United States or their locations, according to agencies’ responses to our survey. Therefore, no agency is responsible for determining the aggregate risks associated with the expansion of these labs.

Back to the Armchair Generalist post, some of the commenters seemingly poo-poo the threat of hundreds (or thousands, as the case may be) of BSL labs across the country, saying that all of the accidents so far have been contained within the labs and haven’t been any of the really bad bugs, so why fret?  Well, it’s only got to happen once, as Mom used to say, for us to learn our lesson.  The fact of the matter is that mistakes are happening – and for all we know are continuing to happen – and if that isn’t enough to scare the CDC into seriously regulating these labs, then maybe we shouldn’t have so many.  All we need is one C- grad student at Pipsqueak Rural Community College’s BSL-3 lab to doze off at the wheel, and well, we certainly won’t have to ask the CDC to start regulating – because Congress will make them.

Photo credit: Avi_Abrams

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One Comment leave one →
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