Since the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and raised the specter of bioterrorism in the United States, the number of high-level biosafety labs operated by governments, universities and others to study potentially lethal pathogens has been expanding rapidly. According to a 2013 report to Congress, the number of these labs grew by almost 10 percent, from 1,362 to 1,495, between 2008 and 2010 alone.
The construction of hundreds of new labs designed for working with dangerous organisms has occurred without any central oversight or clear strategy for expansion, congressional analysts and others say. The expansion has raised concerns that many of these labs may not be needed and that their sheer number raises the risk of exposure to the public from the germs they study.
The FBI’s chief suspect in the 2001 attack, who committed suicide in 2008 before he could be charged in the case, was a biologist at the Army’s biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Despite the concerns, Los Alamos National Laboratory is pushing forward a 2001 plan to build labs to work with disease germs like anthrax and tuberculosis, even though Los Alamos has not adequately explained what the facility would be used for or why it is needed, according to a report released last week by Department of Energy Inspector General Gregory Friedman.
Friedman wrote that the $9.5 million proposal had been made without fully assessing the need for and cost effectiveness of the project, and that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs Los Alamos and other energy labs, “needs to fully reassess its need for biological research facilities.”
Friedman’s criticism comes just a month after officials at the Food and Drug Administration in Bethesda found 12 boxes containing vials of smallpox, dengue fever and influenza viruses — among other potentially deadly disease agents — squirreled away in cold storage.
It also comes after Congress in January created an independent commission to consider consolidating or downsizing the Energy Department’s 17 research labs, which cost $10 billion annually, in part to reduce duplication of efforts. At their first meeting in July, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said he hoped the panel would come up with a “strategic” view of the laboratories in the 21st century. Its findings aren’t expected until next year.
Today there are more than 450 research centers operating as many as 1,500 labs capable of conducting research on biological agents such as Ebola and anthrax, said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University and a laboratory director at the university’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology. Ebright said more than 12,000 individuals are authorized to work with these lethal pathogens.
The major concern, he said, is that the sheer number of biosafety labs could raise the risk that dangerous pathogens will accidentally or deliberately be released into the wild.
“It would be funny if it were not so unfortunate,” Ebright said. “The response to the problem magnified the problem, at enormous cost as well.”
Biosafety labs are broken into four categories, with BSL-1 for the lowest-risk pathogens and BSL-4 labs dealing with lethal agents like Ebola that have no vaccine or treatment. The Los Alamos expansion would include BSL-3 labs, which study agents like anthrax, Rift Valley fever, malaria and West Nile virus that can cause possibly lethal infections, as well as a BSL-2 facility, where scientists will study less dangerous agents.
Ebright said the DOE in particular has “no mission that is relevant in any way, shape or form, directly or indirectly, to biological weapons agents. It has no need, directly or indirectly” for a BSL-3 lab.