A new government report is heightening fears about the safety of U.S. biodefense laboratories that study some of the world's deadliest germs. The latest worry: Intruders could easily break in to two of the labs.
Now some lawmakers and members of a new citizens' coalition are asking whether it's time for a timeout in the expansion of the Bush administration's biowarfare defense program.
The Bush administration decided after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the nation needed to combat germs that could be used in a terrorist attack or accidentally released.
And, while U.S. officials say there are no known incidents where outsiders attacked anyone with germs from a U.S. lab, the FBI concluded last summer that a microbiologist at the Army's lab in Fort Detrick, Md. was responsible for anthrax attacks in 2001.
Two House lawmakers and members of a new citizens' coalition — people “living in the shadow” of these labs — say the defensive biowarfare program has expanded too fast since 2001. Security measures have not caught up, they said.
The latest government study, released publicly Thursday, found that intruders could easily break in to two laboratories handling organisms that could cause illnesses with no cure. The AP identified the vulnerable lab locations as Atlanta and San Antonio. The Government Accountability Office did not identify the labs except to say they were classified as Biosafety Level 4 facilities — requiring the highest level of security. But the report included enough details to determine their locations.
In Texas, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research features an outside window that looks directly into the room where the deadly germs are handled. The lab, which is privately run, also lacks sufficient security cameras, intrusion detection alarms or visible armed guards at its public entrances. Officials there said they will tighten security.
The other lab described with weak security in the report is operated by Georgia State University in Atlanta. That lab lacked complete security barriers and any integrated security system, including any live monitoring by security cameras.
During their review, investigators said they watched an unidentified pedestrian enter the building through an unguarded loading dock.