USA Today published a feature on the safety of American biolabs based on exhaustive freedom-of-information requests.
Vials of bioterror bacteria have gone missing. Lab mice infected with deadly viruses have escaped, and wild rodents have been found making nests with research waste. Cattle infected in a university’s vaccine experiments were repeatedly sent to slaughter and their meat sold for human consumption. Gear meant to protect lab workers from lethal viruses such as Ebola and bird flu has failed, repeatedly.
A USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that hundreds of lab mistakes, safety violations and near-miss incidents have occurred in biological laboratories coast to coast in recent years, putting scientists, their colleagues and sometimes even the public at risk.
Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing, the investigation found. And even when research facilities commit the most egregious safety or security breaches — as more than 100 labs have — federal regulators keep their names secret.
Of particular concern are mishaps occurring at institutions working with the world’s most dangerous pathogens in biosafety level 3 and 4 labs — the two highest levels of containment that have proliferated since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Yet there is no publicly available list of these labs, and the scope of their research and safety records are largely unknown to most state health departments charged with responding to disease outbreaks. Even the federal government doesn’t know where they all are, the Government Accountability Office has warned for years.
A team of reporters who work for the USA TODAY Network of Gannett newspapers and TV stations identified more than 200 of these high-containment lab facilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia operated by government agencies, universities and private companies. They’re scattered across the country from the heart of New York City to a valley in Montana; from an area near Seattle’s Space Needle to just a few blocks from Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza restaurant and shopping district.
High-profile lab accidents last year with anthrax, Ebola and bird flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the discovery of forgotten vials of deadly smallpox virus at the National Institutes of Health raised widespread concerns about lab safety and security nationwide and whether current oversight is adequate to protect workers and the public. Wednesday the Department of Defense disclosed one of its labs in Utah mistakenly sent samples of live anthrax — instead of killed specimens – to labs across the USA plus a military base in South Korea where 22 people are now being treated with antibiotics because of their potential exposure to the bioterror pathogen. As many as 18 labs in nine states received the samples, the CDC said Thursday.
“What the CDC incidents showed us … is that the very best labs are not perfectly safe,” says Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University professor of epidemiology. “If it can happen there, it certainly can happen anywhere.”