updated 10/4/2007 10:21:12 AM ET 2007-10-04T14:21:12

Federal terror-fighting agencies can’t identify all the American research laboratories that could become targets of attackers, congressional investigators have found.

The Government Accountability Office asked a dozen agencies whether they kept track of all the labs handling dangerous germs and toxins, or knew the number. All responded negatively.

The findings were prepared for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday.

The government regulates 409 laboratories approved to work with 72 of the world’s deadliest organisms and poisons, including anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria.

But less is known about other labs that work with organisms that cause whooping cough, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, meningitis, typhoid fever, hepatitis, herpes, several strains of flu, rabies, HIV and SARS.

The GAO said U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, told its investigators they need to track all labs that could be vulnerable to terrorism.

U.S. intelligence agencies said they already are handicapped by the failure of some foreign countries to regulate the shipment or possession of biological agents.

The Associated Press reported this week that American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work.

No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents. But the documented cases reflect poorly on procedures and oversight at high-security labs. In some cases, labs have failed to report accidents as required by law.

‘We need improvements’
The GAO report disclosed that inspectors for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited a high-security lab at Texas A&M University in February 2006, just 13 days after one worker was exposed to Brucella bacteria. Inspectors were not told about the exposure. The worker eventually became seriously ill, but recovered.

Dr Richard Besser, the CDC’s terrorism and emergency response coordinator, says the agency’s regulation of the labs is under review by an internal watchdog.

Besser’s written testimony said the Health and Human Services inspector general will issue his report next year.

“We need improvements in our inspection process,” Besser said.

Labs are routinely inspected by the CDC just once every three years, but accidents and changes in research trigger new inspections.

Besser said CDC changes under consideration include:

  • Possible changes in the composition of inspection teams and the frequency of inspections.
  • More expansive interviews of lab employees and closer examination of accident response plans.
  • Interviews with more types of laboratory workers, in par to check their training.
  • Reviewing more internal lab documents to identify problems that may go unreported.
  • Verification, through additional visits, that problems were corrected.

Still, Besser said the regulation program has “greatly enhanced the nations oversight of dangerous biological agents and toxins.

Because of the efforts of the individuals in these programs, there is improved awareness of biosafety and biosecurity throughout the select agent community.”

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