CHICAGO (Reuters) - The White House issued a 187-page report on Thursday designed to improve biosafety following a series of safety breaches at federal laboratories charged with handling dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, bird flu and smallpox.
The report follows a sweeping review of the government’s biosafety and biosecurity practices, and includes specific recommendations and deadlines for laboratories to improve their practices.
It was addressed to top officials at 16 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, which this past July was criticized for repeated mishandling of anthrax at a U.S. Army laboratory in Utah.
In 2014, there were similar breaches by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involving anthrax and bird flu, and the discovery of vials of smallpox from the 1950s in a storage closet in an unsecured Food and Drug Administration lab on the National Institutes of Health’s campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
Recommendations in the report, issued by Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, and John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, stressed the need for transparency, swift reporting of incidents, accountability to the public and strong inventory control measures.
“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,” they wrote in a blog post.
While the recommendations are focused on federal agencies that handle and transfer dangerous agents, Monaco and Holdren said “these principles should also be applied to work that is conducted with any biological agent that could pose a serious threat to public health or agriculture.”
Lab safety consultant Sean Kaufman of Behavioral-Based Improvement Solutions said the recommendations offer a “comprehensive plan” for reducing risks, but “fall extremely short” in providing the training and development opportunities required to change the culture of lab safety.
Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, however, was pleased with the guidelines, which include many of his group’s recommendations, including the call for greater transparency.
In the past, he said, incidents were “kept secret in the name of national security,” which prevented scientists from learning from the mistakes of others.
“These are the things we’ve been asking for,” Becker said, adding that “the lab community needs to hold the federal agencies accountable for action.”
The White House also plans to hold semi-annual reviews to ensure the recommendations are implemented.
Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Diane Craft