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Experts detail risks of bioagent program


The growth in research meant to protect the U.S. from bioterrorism is overwhelming the oversight system, a House panel is told.

By Jia-Rui Chong
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON Rapid growth in the number of biodefense laboratories researching deadly pathogens has overwhelmed the government's ability to adequately monitor the program, federal investigators told Congress on Thursday.

Officials said the expansion of the program over the last few years, coupled with a lack of training of lab workers and poor reporting of lab accidents, posed a potential threat to national security and public health.

"There are too many [labs] at the moment for the level of oversight that's being provided," said Keith Rhodes, chief author of a preliminary report from the Government Accountability Office on biodefense and emerging diseases research. "It's stretched beyond the ability of the fragmented, decentralized oversight that there is now."

Rhodes also expressed concern that, in a survey of 12 federal agencies, none of them could tabulate a total number of the high-security labs -- known as Bio-Safety Level 3 and 4 labs.

Dr. Richard E. Besser, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, acknowledged that lab oversight could be improved.

"As a young program, there is a lot we can learn," he said.

Besser said it was "critically important" for the government to begin convening a task force to suggest better ways to watch over the now-sprawling biodefense program.

The testimony came during a subcommittee hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that was prompted by several recent laboratory accidents, some of which resulted in human exposure.

It was the first time Congress had held a hearing on the safety and security of biodefense research laboratories.

Since 2003, more than 100 accidents have been reported to the CDC or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both of which monitor parts of the biodefense research program.

Among the accidents was a release of anthrax during shipping because of improper packing by workers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Department of Health and Human Services announced a $450,000 fine Thursday against the University of California, which manages the lab. It was the largest of the 11 fines issued by the inspector general since 2003.

Experts say the accidents are an outgrowth of the increase in biodefense work since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the still-unsolved anthrax mailings that took place a week later. Five people died and 17 were infected by anthrax spores sent in ordinary-looking letters.

Funding for biodefense research from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has grown dramatically, from $187 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion in 2006.

Rhodes said the FBI was particularly concerned about its burgeoning workload in conducting background checks on scientists applying to work on a group of 72 dangerous pathogens. These "select agents" include the Ebola virus and the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis.

"As the number of laboratories balloons, [the FBI's] workload balloons," he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) expressed concern that the list of 72 pathogens was too restricted.

"Federal regulations require reports only for incidents involving so-called select agents," he said. "But other dangerous biological pathogens are not on the select agent list, such as hantavirus, SARS and dengue fever."