By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The high-security laboratories that study such deadly diseases as anthrax and plague lack national standards and strategy, putting the country at risk, a congressional watchdog reported on Monday.
The United States has made no overall assessment of its need for the labs, including research priorities, and the number of labs is unknown, said the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
The facilities, known as high-containment laboratories, also are being built to local standards since there are no national guidelines for their design, construction and operations, the GAO said in a followup to a 2009 study on the labs.
"The cost of building and maintaining high-containment laboratories, combined with the current lack of national standards and the uncertainty about the number of high-containment laboratories needed to address priorities, exposes the nation to risk," the report said.
In one instance of lack of standards, the report said, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) high-containment lab in Atlanta had its power knocked out in 2007 by lightning. The outage shut down the air pressure system that kept dangerous pathogens from escaping.
Unknown to CDC officials, a construction crew digging nearby had cut a grounding cable. CDC officials have said that local building codes did not require monitoring of the grounding system.
The study mentioned a British independent review that put part of the blame for a 2007 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England on shabby facilities and substandard practices at the Pirbright government research center.
Last month, the newspaper USA Today reported that government audits had repeatedly cited CDC laboratories for failing to secure potential bioterror agents such as anthrax and plague, and for not training employees who work with them.
The United States also has no reliable source for the number of such high-security labs, the GAO reported.
The GAO estimated that the total had risen to 1,495 in 2010 from 1,362 in 2008. It based the tally on numbers from the CDC and Agriculture Department's Federal Select Agent Program, but called it "an incomplete picture."
The CDC declined to comment on the report, referring questions to the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The White House office said in a letter attached to the report that the administration had taken a number of steps to bolster biodefense, including setting up a panel to coordinate on biological security threats.
It also disagreed with the GAO's assessment that the number of labs was growing and that there was increased risk, the report said.
Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, was among lawmakers who requested the report. His panel has been examining federal regulation of high-containment labs.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by David Gregorio)