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High-containment labs need more oversight

Government report outlines safety improvements following 2014 and 2015 incidents

by Andrea Widener
April 22, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 17

Federal research leaders need stronger oversight of laboratories that handle highly contagious agents, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says. The review by Congress’s investigative arm comes after dangerous biological agents were mishandled at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health during several incidents in 2014 and 2015. At a hearing of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee’s Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee last week, committee members were especially critical of NIH and the Food & Drug Administration for a 2014 incident, in which many previously unknown vials of smallpox were found at an FDA lab on the NIH campus. “Past policy reviews have not brought about the changes necessary to improve safety,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chair. That’s what prompted the committee to ask for the GAO report. Investigators identified six elements that they consider essential to managing contagious biological agents: incident reporting, defined roles and responsibilities, safety training, inventory control, inspections, and top safety guidelines. They then reviewed the policies of 23 federal departments or agencies that oversee high-containment laboratories, also called biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 sites. Of those, 14 did not address all six GAO requirements, and six did not have policies at all. Another seven had policies that had not been reviewed in years.


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