NEWS

Two U.S. Labs Working with Deadly Germs Not Secure, Says GAO

By Matthew Harwood

The Government Accountability Office is set to release as early as today a report criticizing security at two U.S. laboratories where researches handle the world's deadliest germs, according to the Associated Press, which received an early look at the report.

The AP identified the two Biosafety Level 4 labs as the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio,Texas, and Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The GAO, Congress' investigative and auditing arm, did not identify the labs except to say they were classified as Biosafety Level 4 facilities, but the report included enough details for the AP — and others knowledgeable about such labs — to determine their locations. Biosafety Level 4 labs do research on deadly germs and toxins.

... [T]he Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research features an outside window that looks directly into the room where the deadly germs are handled. The lab, which is privately run, also lacks many security cameras, intrusion detection alarms or visible armed guards at its public entrances. Officials there said they will tighten security.

Security was also lax at the lab at Georgia State University. The lab, the AP reports, "lacked complete security barriers" and did not have integrated security systems, including surveillance cameras that run a live feed. During the GAO investigation, investigators watched as an unknown individual entered the lab unmolested through the lab's locking dock.

But investigators say the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research's is the most insecure. Unarmed security guards are stationed in "antiquated" guardhouses across the access road from the facility while an outside company monitors the lab's alarm system and calls police if an alarm is triggered. Investigators warn this could delay response in a critical emergency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the labs, according to the AP, despite their security weaknesses.

This isn't the first time the AP has reported on security weaknesses at high-risk biosafety laboratories in the United States. Last year, the news wire reported that U.S. labs had suffered over 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003. The AP notes the incidents are increasing in frequency as more labs handle and work with deadly germs.

UPDATE: Read the GAO report here.

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