Guest columnThe bioterrorism threat and laboratory security

By Leonard A. Cole

Published 12 March 2012

Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism and on terror medicine who teaches at Rutgers University, investigates the security of U.S. high containment labs in light of the dramatic growth in the number of these labs, which handle dangerous pathogens, following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks

Leonard A. Cole of Rutgers University // Source: Robert Cumins

Note: This article is excerpted from “Bioterrorism: Still a Threat to the U.S.” which appeared in CTC Sentinel, January 2012

Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, the U.S. government has spent about $60 billion on biodefense. Nearly one-third of those dollars has gone to biodefense research under the auspices of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. (The agency is part of the National Institutes of Health.) The NIAID budget for biodefense research has grown from $200 million in 2001 to an annual average of $1.6 billion since 2004.

More laboratories mean greater chances of an accidental release of an agent, and more researchers mean larger numbers of people with access to these agents. Thus some observers deem the country less safe because of the growing number of facilities and researchers working on select agents (specified pathogens and toxins). Of course, the chances of something going wrong in any enterprise, assuming no change in operational security, increase with the size of the enterprise. But a prime weakness is the lack of clarity about the number and safety of high-security laboratories.

In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated four levels of safety for laboratory work with biological agents. A Biosafety Level-1 (BSL-1) laboratory allows for work on relatively innocuous agents and a BSL-4 laboratory on the most dangerous. The two highest containment facilities, BSL-3 and BSL-4, require special security measures including restricted access, negative pressure to prevent air from flowing out of the room, and protective outerwear for operators.

A BSL-4 laboratory is required for work on agents that cause lethal disease for which there is little or no treatment (e.g. smallpox and hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg).  At present there are fifteen such U.S. facilities planned or in operation, triple the number operating in 2001. Other dangerous agents, including the bacteria that cause anthrax and plague, are worked on in BSL-3 laboratories. The number of these laboratories has skyrocketed since 2001, though the actual figures are uncertain.

While an estimated twenty BSL-3 facilities were operating before the anthrax attacks, in the decade since, the number has grown to between 200 and, an astonishing, 1,400 or more. The huge discrepancy is attributable in part to varied methods of calculation. Some assessments have counted all BSL-3 laboratories in an institution as a single BSL-3 facility, while others have designated each laboratory as a separate entity. Further, some laboratories with a BSL-3 designation lack