There's a systemic breakdown that's causing mishandling of potentially deadly biological materials at federal research labs, according to federal investigators.
In May, it was revealed that for over a decade, a U.S. Defense Department laboratory accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to as many as 192 research facilities in the U.S. and abroad.
Speaking before members of a House oversight subcommittee on Tuesday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dr. David Hassell cited a lack of standardized quality and safety protocols among the four Defense laboratories that keep anthrax.
He said that was responsible for the failures to inactivate the bioterrorism agent before it was sent from Dugway Proving Ground, a U.S. Army lab in Utah.
There were other mistakes made at Dugway. There were also safety breaches discovered last year at labs run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 80 employees were potentially exposed to anthrax and strains of the avian flu virus.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) said those issues are part of a pattern of complacency and a lax culture when it came to ensuring safety.
“None of us want to be here again a year from now discussing another set of safety lapses and, heaven forbid, a loss of life,” Murphy said.
Murphy's comments echoed the findings of a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The watchdog agency said it's been reporting issues with high-containment laboratories and making suggested recommendations since 2007.
In 2012, the Defense Department began implementing steps to review its processes and improve on its security procedures. A revised set of protocols at Defense labs will require all research involving the use of hazardous biological agents to submit inspection reports to senior agency management.
A probe looking into the safety breaches at CDC labs identified five incidents in the past decade. One case involved contamination of a nonpathogenic form of bird-flu virus that was crossed with a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 influenza, which was subsequently shipped to another CDC lab. The agency reportedly didn't learn about that occurrence until more than six weeks after it took place.
None of the incidents involving exposure to the pathogens has resulted in any injuries or deaths, Marcia Crosse, director for healthcare at GAO, told lawmakers. She added that continued failure to improve safety protocols at these facilities could put the public's health at risk.
“We've been lucky so far,” Crosse said. “If the types of mistakes we've seen were to occur with a particularly permissible pathogen, like certain strains of influenza, not only would the laboratory workers or their close contacts be at risk, but an epidemic could be triggered with consequences far beyond what we've seen today.”
The GAO report acknowledged that the Defense Department and the CDC have “begun to address weaknesses in the management of their high-containment laboratories, but their activities have not yet been fully implemented.”
The GAO said it will continue to examine the two agencies' work and improvements at high-containment laboratories.