Federal Agencies to beef up biosafety measures following breaches

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Sixteen federal agencies were addressed by the White House in a report detailing recommendations by which their federal laboratories are to improve their biosafety and biosecurity measures, and deadlines to ensure timely changes are made.

The 187-page report issued Thursday follows a series of breaches at certain laboratories handling 65 dangerous pathogens, the most recent of which was the repeated mishandling of anthrax at a Utah United States Army laboratory under the U.S. Department of Defense in July, and serious breaches in handling anthrax, bird flu, and smallpox virus in 2014 at various other laboratories. 

The recommendations in the memorandum were put forward by Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

They call for: 

– Transparency
– Swift incident reporting
– Public accountability
– Material stewardship that includes inventory management and control measures
– Increased training for developing and maintaining biosafety and security cultures
– the appropriate number of high-containment U.S. laboratories needed to handle select agent pathogens so that safety risks to workers and potentially, the public are lowered 

Both advisers wrote in a blog post on the government website, “These principles emphasize a commitment to protecting Americans and the global community, and ensuring a system designed to prevent dangerous actors from accessing or misusing sensitive biological material.” 

Sean Kaufman, laboratory safety consultant of Behavioral-Based Improvement Solutions, pointed out to Reuters that the recommendations are “comprehensive” but “fall short” in terms of increasing training to develop and maintain biosafety and security cultures. 

The executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, Scott Becker, however, was pleased with the guidelines. “In the past,” he shared with Reuters, incidents were “kept secret in the name of national security,” which prevented scientists from learning from the mistakes of others.

An ongoing investigation by USA TODAY Media Network reveals that “pervasive secrecy obscures failures by labs and regulators to ensure research facilities don’t unduly put workers and the public at risk.”

In the government blog, Monaco and Holdren wrote, “The United States has the strongest biomedical research enterprise in the world, and it is incumbent on everyone involved to ensure the safety and security of workers and communities as we continue to produce groundbreaking research in order to provide the best possible medical treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics for the American people and the international community.”