A bioterror attack is one of the greatest threats that our nation faces today. Recent incidents such as the swine flu outbreak and the contamination of food products demonstrate how rapidly a biologically hazardous situation can escalate into a catastrophic incident. Now, consider the potential impact of a far more potent biological toxin escaping from a biofacility. A very small amount of any such toxin could lead to disastrous consequences and significant loss of life. As a result, the Security Industry Association (SIA) has made improving security at biolabs and facilities one of its key legislative priorities for 2009.
In December 2008, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism issued a report titled, “World at Risk.” The report, which was included in the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, identified several insufficiencies in biosecurity.
“Biotechnology has spread globally,” the report noted. “At the same time that it has benefited humanity by enabling advances in medicine and in agriculture, it has also increased the availability of pathogens and technologies that can be used for sinister purposes. Many biological pathogens and nuclear materials around the globe are poorly secured — and thus vulnerable to theft by those who would put these materials to harmful use, or would sell them on the black market to potential terrorists.”
In early 2009, President George W. Bush responded by issuing Executive Order 13486, which established a working group on “Strengthening the Biosecurity of the United States.” The working group is responsible for evaluating existing laws and practices with regard to the physical, facility and personnel security of federal and non-federal labs that possess select biological agents and toxins. The group must report its findings to President Obama no later than July 9, 2009, and its report is expected to include several legislative recommendations intended to strengthen safeguards at labs and biofacilities.
On the day he was inaugurated, Obama issued a memo that furthered President Bush’s efforts on biosecurity. The memo emphasized the administration’s focus on preventing bioterrorism; created the capacity to mitigate the consequences of bioterror attacks, accelerated new medicines, vaccines and production capabilities; and advanced an international effort to contain the impact of major infectious disease epidemics. This focus has led to increased congressional interest regarding security concerns at these facilities.
Members of Congress have expressed concern about the findings of recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that criticized the state of perimeter security at certain Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs in the United States. BSL-4 labs handle the world’s most dangerous biologically hazardous agents and diseases. A report issued by GAO in Sept. 2008 noted that, “Regulations issued by the Centers for Disease Control do not mandate specific perimeter security controls that need to be in place at each BSL-4 lab, resulting in significant differences in perimeter security. According to the regulations, each lab must implement a security plan that is sufficient to safeguard select agents against unauthorized access, theft, loss or release; however, there are no minimum specific perimeter security standards that must be in place at every BSL-4 lab.”
Key lawmakers, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), have pledged to conduct additional hearings and introduce legislation that would strengthen lab security.
“Biotechnology research can create medical and scientific breakthroughs, but it can also be used to create weapons of bioterror. And much of this research takes place in poorly secured facilities,” says Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “The bottom line is, we need a strong homeland and international defense to confront these dangers.”