The US health authorities are seriously mulling over cutting the growing number of labs working with the most dangerous microbes, including small pox, anthrax etc, on the Earth.
The development comes in response to the last week’s disclosures that top government labs were reported to be mishandling anthrax, smallpox and avian flu.
Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled a report documenting multiple safety breaches at some of the government labs.
For the first time, the CDC director suggested of checking the rapid-fire proliferation of such research units following the glaring exposure. The medical research labs have almost tripled in little more than a decade to at least 1,500.
In a statement, CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden said, “One of the things that we want to do is reduce the number of laboratories that work with dangerous agents to the absolute minimum necessary. Reduce the number of people who have access to those laboratories to the absolute minimum necessary. Reduce the number of dangerous pathogens we work with.”
In the recent years, there has been an alarming rise in the number of incidents of lost or escaped microbes from biomedical labs.
Experts say the burgeoning number of incidences require a wholesale shift in US biodefense policy. The policy includes preparedness for disease outbreaks and for the use of biological agents in terror attacks.
The CDC and US Department of Agriculture approve the opening of labs that work with ‘select agents’ including microbes and poisons, that could be used to make bio weapons.
However, the registration of these labs can only be cancelled on pretext of a clear violation of the rules for handling those microbes.
“Just as with domestic spying by the National Security Agency, drone attacks and a long list of other things, the White House seems to feel it must maintain the policies of the last administration or risk being called weak on homeland security,” said molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University.
A 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows, 415 labs (working with select agents) had registered with the CDC or the USDA in 2004. The number grew further to 1,495 in 2010.
Government Accountability Office is the investigative arm of Congress.
A 2012 CDC report showed, there were 16 incidents of lost or escaped microbes from select-agent labs in 2004. The number rose to 128 in 2008 and 269 in 2010, CDC report showed.
“It is almost exactly two per week and accelerating,” said epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard School of Public Health.
According to Lipsitch, such incidences can only be checked with good staff training and physical measures.