Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BSL-4 Lab Security

In 2008, the Government Accountability Office assessed the security of the nation's five BSL-4 labs, and found that two of the five labs showed a "significant lack" of security controls. The GAO evaluated the labs on 15 criteria including the existence of a perimeter boundary, a buffer zone around the lab, barriers to prevent vehicles from entering the lab, a command and control center, a closed circuit tv system, camera coverage for all exterior lab entrances, a visible armed presence at all entrances, and vehicle screening. The two problem labs did not have any of the mentioned security measures in place.

The GAO presented its findings to the CDC and recommended that they take steps to increase the security of the failing labs. In a follow up report, however, the GAO found that the CDC had taken only limited actions to implement increased security measures, creating a task force on the issue. The CDC has refused to present minutes or findings of the task force to the GAO at this time. In the interim, the two failing labs have implemented some additional security measures themselves. One lab is now on its way to having the same standards as the three well secured labs. However, the fifth lab has implemented just a few changes, instead questioning the criteria assessed by the GAO. This lab maintains that it is sufficiently secured even though it does not have the specific measures required by the GAO.

This situation paints a disturbing picture of BSL-4 security in this country. There is currently no government agency or office responsible for creating a standardized security program for the labs. While all must comply with select agent security rules, these do not offer enough guidance for overarching, uniform security measures. Another concern is that the labs are run by different government agencies with different ideas about security. For instance, one of the labs with high security is run by the DoD. While the concerns from the fifth failing lab regarding the selection of assessment criteria are valid, I would personally feel more secure knowing that all labs dealing with highly lethal agents have a uniform, high-level security system in place. Especially with more BSL-4 labs expected to open in the near future, greater communication and cooperation are needed between the CDC, GAO and other agencies that run the labs, like the DoD. How such cooperation would arise is the biggest question. However, with the recent introduction of the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 that seeks to allocate additional funding for lab security, we can at least hope that the the recommended improvements for the failings labs will be implemented in the near future.

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