WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers issued a strong rebuke of Texas A&M University for lab security breaches on Thursday, in a daylong hearing that highlighted how little the government knows about its own biodefense program.
And, they credited the Austin-based bioweapons watchdog that uncovered safety violations at A&M - violations the university failed to disclose for more than a year - with raising questions about federal research oversight nationwide.
"No one in the federal government even knows for sure how many of these labs there are in the U.S., much less what research they are doing or whether they are safe and secure," said. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
Government investigators at Thursday's hearing painted a bleak picture of a fragmented and rapidly growing national biodefense program. And they attributed the exposures of Texas A&M lab workers to dangerous pathogens - problems they said could've been catastrophic - to the unchecked expansion of the country's biodefense lab facilities without a comparable increase in oversight.
The National Institutes of Health has spent more than $1 billion building new high-security research labs since the anthrax attacks of 2001, many of them on university campuses.
Edward Hammond, director of the Texas-based watchdog group The Sunshine Project, said biodefense lab space will grow by 4 million square feet in the next few years, equivalent to 36 "big box" stores.
"We would be safer and could accomplish our national needs if (the federal biodefense) program were a fifth or even smaller of what we have right now," Hammond told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "We went considerably too far."
Keith Rhodes, of the Government Accountability Office, said that government's oversight is not adequate to keep pace with the growth in the number of labs.
"Since the labs are largely overseeing themselves at this point, it is not the regulators but only the operators of the labs who can tell you . . . whether (the problems) are the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg themselves," he said.
More than 400 labs in the country are registered to do research with "select agents," highly infectious pathogens monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But these don't account for all of the nation's labs that work with other agents.
Texas A&M was central to Thursday's hearing and the key example for almost every government official citing problems in the country's biodefense research. The CDC has halted A&M's biodefense research pending an overhaul of the university's safety standards.
On Thursday, interim Texas A&M President Eddie Davis Jr. said the university made a serious mistake when it failed to report the exposures to the CDC for more than a year. He said university officials only realized their lapse when Hammond requested documents from them.
"This is not the type of role model we would like to be," Davis said. "Our episode and the revelations of this hearing will probably cause others to awaken to the need to be very vigilant."
Texas lawmakers on the committee - including Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston; Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound; and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis - stood behind A&M on Thursday, vowing to help the university's biodefense program get back on its feet.
"Texas A&M will be a model for how to do things right; you have my personal guarantee," said Barton, an A&M alum.
But the lawmakers also demanded to know how the CDC missed the shortcomings at A&M that Hammond found through an open records request, despite repeated inspections.
"I think it is fair to say the CDC probably didn't do the same level of searching" that A&M did to respond to Hammond's request, Davis said.
CDC officials declined to comment on A&M specifically, citing an investigation by the Health and Human Services inspector general that could result in up to $250,000 in penalties for the university. But they defended their oversight of labs, saying their triennial inspections and hard-line approach to the facilities under their purview have "greatly enhanced the nation's oversight of dangerous biological agents."
(c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News. Reprinted Via NewsCom.