A lot of interesting testimony came out of yesterday’s House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, which was titled “Review of CDC Anthrax Lab Incident,” but broadly covered the numerous slapstick-‘cept-it-ain’t-funny errors around dangerous pathogens research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those just joining the conversation, these hilarious mishaps have included leaving activated anthrax in unlocked, unsecured refrigerators; mixing high pathogenicity avian influenza with low pathogenicity avian influenza and then shipping it over to the US Department of Agriculture in the worst version of novelty surprise in a can ever; and using ziploc bags to transport petri dishes between labs. And as an added bonus, there was some discussion about the broader issues of the proliferation of biosafety laboratories working on select agents.
In particular, the statement of Nancy Kingsbury, PhD, the Managing Director, Applied Research and Methods, at the Government Accountability office, is worth a read. The statement pulls no punches, saying:
No federal entity is responsible for strategic planning and oversight of high-containment laboratories. … No one agency is responsible for determining the aggregate or cumulative risks associated with the continued expansion of high-containment laboratories; according to experts and federal officials GAO interviewed for prior work, the oversight of these laboratories is fragmented and largely self-policing.
In fact, since 2001, the proliferation of biosafety laboratories has resulted in nearly 1500 laboratories in the United States alone that handle and do research on dangerous pathogens.
If only there were some sort of national advisory board for biosecuri-oh wait!
Except, as has already been noted, the NSABB hasn’t met in nearly two years. But that’s okay, you see; the current chair of the NSABB1 wants you to know that this is intentional! Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, says that the NSABB has “been waiting essentially for the new federal guidelines to come out on institutional implementation of DURC policy. We wanted to have a look at what the federal agencies would come up with.”2
You guys had one job.
Well, wait. Okay. This can easily be clarified by looking at the NSABB charter, which was recently revised, so clearly it is timely and up-to-date and will clarif-
The NSABB will provide advice on and recommend specific strategies for the efficient and effective oversight of federally conducted or supported dual use biological research, taking into consideration both national security concerns and the needs of the research community to foster continued rapid progress in public health and agricultural research.3
In Stanley’s defense, he argues that these recent “issues” at the CDC are surely concerning as a scientist, but they’re really not about dual-use or gain of function research, so they don’t involve the NSABB. It wasn’t, you see, created to be about biosafety.
It’s really such a bitch when the first bulleted item on the list of “description of duties” on your charter contradicts the interviews you give: Recommend strategies and guidance for enhancing personnel reliability among individuals with access to biological select agents and toxins.5
Funny thing. The last time I looked, anthrax sure as hell was a select agent. Oh look! So is H5N1.
Your move, Stanley. I suggest it involve picking up a phone and dialing 11 different numbers.