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Is the United States’ Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Effective?

A recent report noted there may be flaws in the US program that oversees the activities of laboratories conducting research on dangerous pathogens.

Several laboratories in the US conduct research on dangerous pathogens such as Ebola and anthrax bacteria. A certain level of safety is required and needs to be enforced when participating in research that involves dangerous pathogens.

Following events that point to safety lapses in some of these laboratories, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review the oversight approach of the Federal Select Agent Program. This is a program that is jointly managed by the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) and oversees the activities of laboratories that participate in dangerous pathogen research.

The GAO recently published a report of their findings and recommendations for the Select Agent Program. In this report, it was noted that the Select Agent Program is not completely independent of the laboratories it oversees and as such, there is the possibility of conflicts of interest. Following interviews with experts and laboratory representatives, the GAO also found that high-risk activities are not usually targeted during reviews and inspection of these laboratories partly due to the fact that activities have not been properly assessed to determine those that have the highest risk. Another finding by the GAO was the lack of technical expertise and trained personnel, pointing to a gap in training.

Based on these findings and more, GAO made eleven recommendations. These recommendations include risk assessments of both its structure and activities in order to avoid conflicts of interest, as well as targeting high-risk activities, and developing a joint workforce plan. The HHS and USDA as agree to the recommendations by the GAO.

Written by Asongna T. Folefoc


(1) Kelly Servick. U.S. oversight of risky pathogen research has flaws, report finds. Science Magazine. doi:10.1126/science.aar3712.
(2) United States Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Requesters. HIGH-CONTAINMENT LABORATORIES: Coordinated Actions Needed to Enhance the Select Agent Program’s Oversight of Hazardous Pathogens. GAO-18-145: Oct 19, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 31, 2017.



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