Strengthening Security and Oversight at Biological Research Laboratories

Professor Michael Greenberger’s written testimony for a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, held Sept. 22, 2009. The thesis of the testimony is as followes: The Nation can upgrade security measures at those biosafety level ("BSL") laboratories that handle the most dangerous pathogens ("BSL-3" and "BSL-4" labs), so that federal government can develop countermeasures to potential terror attacks without having that research in and of itself pose a threat to national security. At the end of this testimony, we make recommendations in aid of such a policy. To put the recommendations in context, the testimony establishes the following foundational evidence: (1) a summary of statutory and regulatory mandates addressed to BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs; (2) a summary of leading reports that have been issued recommending improved biosecurity measures at those labs; (3) a brief description of biosafety mishaps at BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs that have provoked the controversy at hand; and (4) an examination of biosafety practices employed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore BSL-3 laboratories that deploy “best practices” for biosecurity. UMB’s measures have successfully ensured safety within those laboratories, and may serve as a model for the operation of non-military biosafety laboratories in the United States. We therefore recommend that this Subcommittee draft legislation that will: (1) replace the present fragmented federal agency oversight system for biosafety laboratories by creating consolidated oversight responsibilities within a single agency; (2) through this agency, establish an accreditation system for BSL laboratories to ensure that they are operated safely and securely; (3) establish a reporting system, which ensures that all laboratory mishaps are promptly reported to, and promptly reviewed by, the oversight agency so that the facts pertaining to these mishaps can be made available in a meaningful way to other laboratories in a "lessons learned" modality; (4) improve the process of personnel reliability assessments; and (5) recognize that a ‘one-size fits all’ model of compliance is too great a burden on most non-military BSL laboratories, and thus foster a private sector model of strong, but appropriate and practical, biosecurity procedures for those BSL labs.

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