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Editorial: Oversight Needed of Government Labs

It would have been alarming enough if scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just inadvertently shipped deadly anthrax samples to other labs not equipped to handle them — without even properly sterilizing them first. What’s worse is that this was one in a string of lab mishaps since 2006 involving anthrax, botulism bacteria, a dangerous strain of Brucella bacteria and lethal bird flu virus.

And that’s just the CDC. Earlier this month, a lab at the National Institutes of Health discovered six half-century-old vials of smallpox sitting in a storage room in Maryland.

Some of these blunders might have been prevented if federal officials had heeded repeated warnings from the Government Accountability Office that high-containment laboratories need tighter, centralized oversight. In 2009 and again in 2013, the GAO urged the White House to create a single body to oversee the growing number of labs, as well as develop standards for their operation and a strategy to keep them safe.

Ideally, such national standards would ensure that all U.S. laboratories — government or private — that work with infectious pathogens follow procedures that are independently approved and monitored in order to prevent samples from being handled unsafely. It would also create a nationwide inventory-control program to make sure no more deadly vials are tucked away and forgotten.

A national strategy should also include the establishment of an independent body to oversee all high-containment labs run by federal agencies — including the CDC, the NIH and the Department of Defense — as the GAO has recommended. Such an overseer could examine how many labs are needed and when the risks for work on a particular strain outweigh the benefits. And it could help ensure that the private labs that also deal with disease germs aren’t the source of the next mistake.

The GAO has called for those efforts to be coordinated by the president’s national security adviser or by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. What matters isn’t who plays that role, but that someone has both the responsibility to keep the nation’s labs safe and the authority to make sure they are.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that he has temporarily halted all shipments from high-containment labs and is setting up stricter oversight of all lab safety within the CDC.

But as Fred Upton, the chairman of the full committee, noted, the CDC has promised such fixes before: “Why should we believe this time things will be different?”

Why indeed? A better answer is to create an airtight system, independent of the CDC, that polices every lab — inside government and out.

Bloomberg News