BioLab Secrecy & Sunshine
In response to last week’s news regarding the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground inadvertently distributing live samples of anthrax to labs in nine states, USA Today (May 28) is running a special investigation into biolabs. The report is authored by Alison Young and Nick Penzenstadler. Through their investigation, Young and and Penzenstadler found that
Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing, the investigation found. And even when research facilities commit the most egregious safety or security breaches — as more than 100 labs have — federal regulators keep their names secret.
Of particular concern are mishaps occurring at institutions working with the world’s most dangerous pathogens in biosafety level 3 and 4 labs — the two highest levels of containment that have proliferated since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Yet there is no publicly available list of these labs, and the scope of their research and safety records are largely unknown to most state health departments charged with responding to disease outbreaks. Even the federal government doesn’t know where they all are, the Government Accountability Office has warned for years.
In the early days of the Web, the Sunshine Project, which ceased operations in 2008, was the watchdog source for information on the nation’s labs. Remnants of their Web pages may still be found at the Wayback Machine. Sunshine created one of the first maps available on the Web of facilities dotting the U.S. Sunshine’s online archive of Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) meeting minutes obtained under FOIA are still live. In 2004, Sunshine published an eight-month survey of 390 IBC committees across the United States titled Mandate for Failure The State of Institutional Biosafety Committees in an Age of Biological Weapons Research (here’s a copy).
What the USA Today investigation identifies is a continuing lack of publicity and transparency regarding the biolabs and that oversight remains problematic. Moreover, questions regarding compliance with the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention.
Chadwick, Lauren.(2016, March 26). Bio-threat Protections Inadequate. Center for Public Integrity.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2015, June 25). Chemical and Biological Defense:Designated Entity Needed to Identify, Align, and Manage DOD’s Infrastructure. GAO-15-257 (Contains maps).
U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2016, September 23). High-Containment Laboratories: Actions Needed to Mitigate Risk of Potential Exposure and Release of Dangerous Pathogens. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-871T
U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2016, August 30). High-Containment Laboratories: Improved Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Needed to Mitigate Risk. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-642
Smith, R. Jeffrey, and Malone, Patrick. (2016, September 23). Deadly Pathogens Repeatedly Dispatched by U.S. Labs to Unsecure Sites. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2016/09/23/20252/deadly-pathogens-repeatedly-dispatched-us-labs-unsecure-sites
Young, Alison.(2016, July 1). Hundreds of Safety Incidents with Bioterror Germs Reported by Secretive Labs. USA Today.