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Securing the Labs

July 24, 2006

A large proportion of universities that conduct research with some of the most dangerous substances that can be found on campuses did not fully comply with federal safety rules, according to a new audit from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The audit examined the way 15 universities handled "select agents," those toxins and other materials that could cause serious harm either through accidents or their theft by people trying to do harm. Citing the "sensitivity" of the information, full reports on the findings went only to the universities involved -- none of which were named. Of those 15 universities, 11 were found to have "weaknesses" that "could have compromised the ability to safeguard select agents from accidental or intentional loss." Only a small minority of institutions -- 96 were registered with the government as of January -- work with select agents.

Because the institutions were not named, it is impossible to know if the problems identified have been fixed. But the report is based on audits conducted in 2003 and 2004 and the report indicates that most of the universities audited agreed with recommendations on how to deal with vulnerabilities. Generally, since 9/11, federal regulation of research with dangerous substances has increased steadily, as have university efforts to tighten security. So it is likely that the audit represents an outdated picture.

But HHS found the following problems:

  • Weaknesses in inventory or access records -- including records that didn't identify those who entered areas with select agents (eight universities)
  • Inadequate systems to restrict access to select agents (six universities)
  • Inadequate security plans (six universities)
  • Inadequate training (three universities)
  • Inadequate emergency plans (three universities)

Toby Smith, associate director of federal relations of the Association of American Universities, said that research administrators take security issues seriously. Many of the universities doing research with select agents are in fact doing research on how to fight bioterrorism attacks.

Smith said that the audit would probably prompt all universities dealing with select agents to review procedures. "Ultimately, our universities are responsible for complying with the law and putting in place proper controls," Smith said. "We believe that since 9/11, there have been significant increases in our awareness and the degree to which we are controlling and regulating and watching over these agents."

 

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