WASHINGTON - The US government does not conduct surprise inspections of laboratories handling the world's most dangerous organisms and poisons, but regulators said yesterday that that could change.
Officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are reviewing the policy, after inspectors did not learn of worker infections last year at Texas A&M University.
"The issue of unannounced inspections is something we need to consider," said Dr. Robbin Weyant, director of Select Agents and Toxins at the CDC.
The CDC inspects high-security research laboratories once every three years, although there are additional inspections when an accident is reported or a lab changes its research.
US Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, pointed out that CDC inspectors who visited the Texas A&M lab last year, shortly after a worker was exposed to Brucella bacteria, did not find out about the problem.
The lab was required to report the problem to the government immediately, but did not do so until this year.
"Without a surprise inspection, how are you going to know?" Stupak asked.
A watchdog group did learn of the worker exposure. The Sunshine Project, through the Texas open records law, discovered not only the Brucella infection but the exposure of three other workers to the agent that causes Q fever, a virulent but uncommon infection linked to another bacterium.
Dr. Richard Besser, the CDC's antiterrorism coordinator, told the House hearing that the agency is looking to improve its inspection program. It may change the composition of inspection teams and increase the frequency of inspections.
The interim president of Texas A&M, Dr. Eddie Davis, said the school was committed "to research, to safety, and to compliance." He did not oppose surprise inspections.
"We should have a program that can endure any type of inspection, announced or unannounced," he testified.
Davis said the Sunshine Project's open records request triggered a much more thorough document search than the one sought by the CDC inspectors.
"I assume the CDC didn't do that level of inquiry," Davis said. "They could have asked us."
The Texas A&M lab has been suspended by the CDC from working with the most dangerous organisms. Davis promised that all problems eventually found by regulators would be fixed before the lab applied to resume the research.
"This is not the type of role model we would like to be," he said, referring to past violations.
Congressional investigators, also testifying at the House hearing, said that unregulated laboratories are experimenting with potentially deadly germs - increasing public risk in a system that relies on self-reporting of accidents.
Operators of the labs are the only people who know whether a few known coverups of accidents "are the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg itself," said Keith Rhodes, a Government Accountability Office specialist on lab research.
No government agency knows the total number of unregulated labs or tries to keep track of them, the GAO official said.
The number is expanding, in part because of an increased counterterrorism effort to develop treatments for biological agents that could be used in an attack.
The Associated Press reported this week that American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003.