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Bioterror risks seen at college labs

Materials that could be used for bioterrorism often are kept in insecure areas and aren’t well-monitored by university research labs funded by the Agriculture Department, federal inspectors say.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Materials that could be used for bioterrorism often are kept in insecure areas and aren’t well-monitored by university research labs funded by the Agriculture Department, federal inspectors say.

Trying to reduce post-Sept. 11 opportunities for terrorist attacks, the department’s inspector general found an alarming potential for biological agents, chemicals and radioactive materials could be readily obtained from college laboratories that receive some money from the department.

The money generally is used to pay for agricultural studies of those materials. Some of the specimens include diseases and bacteria, such as anthrax and the plague, which could harm people.

“In the wrong hands, some of these agents or materials could pose a risk to human health and agricultural production in the United States,” inspectors concluded.

In one case, an unlocked freezer contained a biological agent for a plague more severe than the Black Death. Seven vials of Yersinia pestis, one of the highest-risk materials, had been stored there since 1981. It causes bubonic plague, or Black Death, and pneumonic plague, a far more severe, airborne pathogen that infects the lungs and is nearly 100 percent fatal within 48 hours of symptoms.

The last inventory for the freezer was in 1994, and it was incomplete.

Inspectors also said they discovered the freezer wasn’t in a research lab. Rather, it was in an area of the university controlled solely by a lecturer of undergraduate science. He destroyed the vials after government inspectors raised concerns, the report said.

“Officials we spoke with about this situation believed there was a strong possibility that similar conditions existed at a number of other institutions,” inspectors wrote.

One lab outfitted for a researcher working with some of the most high-risk biological agents was found in a building 30 yards from the university’s football stadium, open for bathroom use during night games. Many people have keys, but sometimes the doors remain unlocked.

Another lab that held a pathogen that causes a severe and often fatal contagious disease in swine never had a complete inventory and could be accessed at any time by graduate students without documentation.

The inspector general’s office, after evaluating 104 labs at 10 universities and a private institution during the summer of 2002, urged the White House and the Homeland Security Department to take a closer look at the dangers and issue a set of standards governing security of hazardous materials. The report did not name the labs for security’s sake.

The inspector general’s office recommended the White House impose new standards to:

  • Create a central database of all biological materials stored at an institution.
  • Write procedures for checking backgrounds of lab workers and report missing pathogens.
  • Study potential risks at all labs and improve security based on those assessments.

Only two of the institutions reviewed had a centralized database summarizing inventory of biological agents or chemicals at their labs. Just five had formal procedures for reporting missing pathogens.

Buildings housing the labs commonly lacked alarm systems, surveillance cameras, keycard devices and sign-in sheets, inspectors said. Some did not require the use of ID badges. Doors were not always locked, locks were left unchanged even after keys were lost or stolen, and cleaning staff in many cases had access to the labs after hours.

Agriculture Department officials generally agreed with the report’s findings.

“We agree that a consolidated set of security standards should apply to all organizations handling various types of biohazardous material,” Jeremy Stump, the department’s acting homeland security director, wrote in a letter to the inspector general.