Report calls for NSA-named head for central authority over bio labs

The Government Accountability Office has released a new report calling for the naming of a central authority to oversee laboratories working with biological agents.

The GAO's report, "High Containment Laboratories: National Strategy for Oversight Is Needed," notes that unchecked growth of U.S. labs that work with biological agents without a central authority complicate efforts to make the sites secure and safe.

These high-containment labs, which handle infectious diseases and other biological pathogens, have gone unchecked across the federal government at various agencies and in different budget cycles following 2001's anthrax attacks.

High-containment labs proliferated following the attacks in order to produce medical countermeasures to deadly pathogens. Those attacks were found to have been perpetrated by a scientist at a Frederick, Md., high-containment lab, FBI analyses revealed.

The expansion of the high-containment labs, funded by various agencies for their exclusive missions, occurred without a coordinated strategy.

Federal agencies including the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Labor, State and Veterans Affairs as well as the Environmental Protection agency all employ high-containment labs. None of these agencies, the report states, know the total number of biosafety level three and four labs within the United States and none are responsible for tracking them.

The National Security Advisor, the report says, should designate a single authority with responsibility to conduct a strategic evaluation of the facilities, plan for the adding of high-containment labs and ensure the labs' security.

The proposed NSA selected central authority for the labs would be able to enhance lab security by ensuring that lab expansion did not exceed what is required and by balancing the risks and benefits of expanding the labs. The authority would also determine how to oversee the labs.