U.S. GAO finds risks in bioterror research labs

U.S. laboratories researching biological pathogens like anthrax may be at risk for accidents because they lack uniform building and operation standards, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report said a lack of oversight is persistent despite similar recommendations in 2009 to place a single agency in charge of safety or research goals. The number of laboratories in the U.S. that research methods to protect against biological terrorism and disease outbreaks rose after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, AFP reports.

"This (oversight) deficiency may be more critical today than three years ago because current budget constraints make prioritization essential," the report said, according to AFP.

The report found little change in standards for the buildings that house the deadly research in the last few years.

"GAO found a continued lack of national standards for the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of high-containment laboratories," the GAO said, according to AFP. "In the absence of some fundamental criteria, each laboratory can be designed, constructed, and maintained according to local requirements. This will make it difficult to be able to assess and guarantee safety, as we noted in our 2009 report."

The GAO also said that because no agency is in charge of directing research priorities, important projects like the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Lab are in jeopardy.

"Faced with the nation's current budget constraints, achieving that research priority could be in doubt," the report said, according to AFP.

The GAO called upon the Office of Science and Technology Policy to conduct periodic assessments of biodefense research and development and examine the establishment of national standards for the design, maintenance, construction and operation of the labs, AFP reports.