GAO report gives clear assessment of DOD laboratory oversight post-anthrax scare

In 2015 it was discovered that a U.S. laboratory spent more than a decade inadvertently sending the bacteria that causes anthrax to 194 laboratories worldwide.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has recently released its findings regarding how effective the U.S. Department of Defense has been with addressing the lapses made at the laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, and whether systemic oversight changes regarding biosecurity have since been implemented across DOD facilities. The findings are mixed.

“Not only do you fix those problems there, but in the entire biological defense enterprise in the Department of Defense,” said Joseph Kirschbaum, director in the Defense Capabilities and Management Team of the GAO in a podcast. “Essentially you end up with a better, more effective organization doing risk management and preventing these kinds of things.”

The GAO found that only 18 changes had been made of the 35 the U.S. Army initially sought and, according to the report, the DOD: “…had not fully identified the infrastructure capabilities required to address threats, had not planned to identify potential duplication without considering information from existing federal studies, and had not updated its guidance and planning process to include specific responsibilities and time frames for risk assessments.”

In a summary by the GAO, the Secretary of the Army has gone so far as to implement a BSAT (Biological Select Agents and Toxins) Biosafety and Biosecurity Program, but the organization has not created the strategy and execution for managing the initiative.

“What’s at stake here is that these labs deal with very dangerous biological materials, in this case Bacillus anthracis that could potentially cause anthrax, which as you recall from the post-9/11 attacks in Washington and other places, could potentially be disastrous,” Kirschbaum said.

“What’s at stake when they ship potentially active or still active bacteria is not understanding the extent to which what is required to deactivate it and that was literally what happened,” he added. “So when it’s sent potentially live – not that it’s going to cause anthrax right away – but there is a potential if it got loose that it might cause that and obviously that was a concern to everyone.”

As for Dugway Proving Ground, it’s unclear from the GAO’s assessment why the 575 shipments of Bacillus anthracis were sent in the first place, such as whether they may have been confused for other materials. The document does cite that senior management at the laboratory had contributed to “a culture of complacency, resulting in laboratory personnel not always following rules, regulations, and procedures.”

The BioTesting Division at Dugway Proving Ground is working to regain its certification as a covered facility under the Federal Select Agent Program to possess BSAT in the United States.

Claudia Adrien

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