Audit finds research labs slow to improve security
By SAM HANANEL — August 05, 2009
WASHINGTON — Government officials have been slow to upgrade security at U.S. laboratories that handle deadly germs nearly a year after congressional investigators found weak security controls, a new audit finds.
Two of the labs found to have security problems have made some improvements despite "limited action" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work out a comprehensive safety plan, the report from the Government Accountability Office said.
Investigators urged the CDC to set uniform perimeter security for all five of the nation's Biosafety Level 4 labs. Those labs handle organisms that cause diseases without a cure — such as the Ebola virus and smallpox — and require the highest level of security.
The report, set for release later this week, was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
"Although CDC has taken some modest steps for studying how to improve perimeter security controls for all BSL–4 labs, CDC has not established a detailed plan to implement our recommendation," the report said.
While the GAO did not identify the vulnerable labs, the AP has previously identified their locations as Atlanta and San Antonio.
The CDC says it has convened a working group to study how to improve security controls. But GAO investigators rapped the agency for declining to make any documents available so progress could be monitored.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, requested the GAO's follow–up report. She and the committee chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., plan to introduce legislation next month to require increased, risk-based security standards at the biosafety labs.
"I am very troubled that the GAO found significant deficiencies in perimeter security," Collins said.
Last year's report found the San Antonio lab, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, lacked enough security cameras or visible armed guards. It also had an outside window that could provide direct access to the lab where germs are handled. The same report said the Atlanta lab, operated by Georgia State University, needed better security barriers and an integrated security system.
Since the original report was released, the Atlanta lab made "a significant number" of the recommended improvements, while the San Antonio lab has made "a few changes," the new report found.
But those labs still aren't as safe as the nation's three other biosafety labs, which feature impressive security. Those include the CDC's own facility, also in Atlanta; the Army's lab at Fort Detrick, Md.; and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Lawmakers are concerned about the risk that terrorists could try to steal germs or toxins that can be used to harm humans, livestock or crops.
"We simply cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand about the very real risks we face from a terrorist biological attack," Lieberman said.