Some call for a timeout as US releases biolab security report
Intruders could break in at Texas, Georgia facilities
WASHINGTON - A new government report is heightening fears about the safety of US biodefense laboratories that study some of the world's deadliest germs. The latest worry: Intruders could easily break into two of the labs because of lax security.
Now some lawmakers and members of a new citizens coalition are asking whether it is time for a timeout in the expansion of the Bush administration's biowarfare defense program.
The Bush administration decided after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that the nation needed to develop cures, drug treatments, vaccines, and diagnostic tests to combat germs that could be used, either in an attack or accidentally.
And, while US officials say there are no known incidents where outsiders attacked anyone with germs from a US lab, the FBI concluded last summer that Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at an Army lab in Fort Detrick, Md. was responsible for anthrax attacks in 2001. Ivins committed suicide earlier this year.
Two House lawmakers and members of a new citizens coalition - people "living in the shadow" of these labs - say the defensive biowarfare program has expanded too quickly. Security measures have not kept up, they said.
The latest government study, obtained by The Associated Press and released publicly yesterday, found that intruders could easily break into two laboratories handling organisms that could cause incurable illnesses.
The Associated Press identified the vulnerable lab locations as Atlanta and San Antonio. The Government Accountability Office, which produced the report, did not identify the labs except to say they are classified as Biosafety Level 4 facilities - requiring the highest level of security. But the report included enough to determine their locations.
In Texas, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research has an outside window that looks directly into the room where the deadly germs are handled. The lab, which is privately run, also lacks sufficient security cameras, intrusion detection alarms or visible armed guards at its public entrances, the report said. Officials there said they will tighten security.
"We already have an initiative under way to look at perimeter security," said Kenneth Trevett, president of the lab in San Antonio. "We're waiting for additional input but we're not waiting long. The GAO would like us to do some fairly significant things. They would like us to do it sooner rather than later."
The other lab described as having insufficient security is operated by Georgia State University in Atlanta. That lab lacked complete security barriers and any integrated security system, including any live monitoring by security cameras. During their review, investigators said they watched an unidentified pedestrian enter the building through an unguarded loading dock.
"Georgia State clearly wants its BSL-4 to be as safe as possible," said DeAnna Hines, assistant vice president for university relations. "We are already taking steps that will enhance the lab's safety and security standards." Hines did not confirm the school's research lab was the one mentioned in the congressional report.
The report, coupled with several investigative findings over the past year, revealed security and safety problems covering every aspect of the facilities: poor perimeter security, a growing number of accidents inside the labs, and the FBI's conclusion last summer that a civilian Army scientist at Ft. Detrick, Md. was behind deadly anthrax attacks in 2001.
In Boston, Boston University's new National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories complex, on Albany Street, has been controversial. It contains Level 3 and Level 4 labs.
Beth Willis, a member of a citizens group from Frederick, Md. near Fort Detrick, said, "We understand we're not going to make the labs go away, but we have a lot of concerns about safety.
"Biomedical research is very important. We're not saying it all should stop. We are saying the size and scale of the ramp-up with pathogens, considered by the government to be biowarfare pathogens, is a dangerous thing," Willis said. "It's an opportunity to say 'time out' and address this."
Michigan Representative John Dingell, a Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this week repeated his call for suspension of all further design and construction of biodefense laboratories until security problems are fixed.
In a letter to President Bush in August, Dingell and fellow Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, also of Michigan, urged the suspension of all further design and construction of laboratories in the program - until security problems are fixed.
"We found that many of the labs are probably unnecessary or redundant. Shockingly, the Government Accountability Office reported that no one in the government even knows the total number of BSL (Biosafety Level) 3 and 4 labs currently in existence.
"Ironically, their proliferation has only exacerbated the potential risk of a terrorist incident or accidental release, not enhanced our nation's security."
BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories are those handling the most dangerous germs and toxins and requiring the most stringent security. The BSL-4 labs handle organisms that cause diseases without a cure. They include ebola, marburg, junin and lassa viruses.