Nods of Agreement in a Federal Workgroup Meeting?

By Tony Barkey, MPH, Senior Specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response

No, your eyes were not deceiving you, the mood at the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) meeting last week was positive. There were even several smiles around the room amidst serious discussion of biosafety and biosecurity.

FESAP was created in response to the Executive Order, Optimizing the Security of Biological Select Agents and Toxins in the United States, to advise lead agencies overseeing the Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Programs on issues pertaining to composition of the BSAT list, personnel reliability programs, and the physical and cyber security of BSAT facilities.

At a FESAP meeting on July 21st, members Dr. James Pearson, director, Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services in Virginia, and Dr. Christina Egan, director, Biodefense Laboratory, Wadsworth Center in New York, represented APHL’s position concerning recommendations outlined in a recently released FESAP report, Recommendations Concerning the Select Agent Program. After an introduction to APHL and public health laboratories, including how they differ from research and production laboratories, Drs. Egan and Pearson directed their remarks to the recommendations outlined in chapters two (tiering and reduction of the Select Agent list), three (personnel reliability) and four (physical and cyber security) of the report. Their comments follow:

  • Chapter 2- APHL applauded the recommendation to reduce the BSAT list for agents and toxins, which are widely distributed in nature, cannot be easily produced and have limited pathogenicity. The association called for the exclusion of botulinum toxin and/or toxin producing strains of C. botulinum in Tier 1.
  • Chapter 2- APHL opposed new tiering that would result in an increase in biosecurity for any select agents. Public health laboratories already have special controls in place to protect against the misuse of select agents and other pathogens.
  • Chapter 3- APHL recommended that no additional personnel reliability processes be implemented by entities responsible for BSAT. Public health laboratories have stringent processes in place for screening employees, including Human Resources background checks, FBI Security Risk Assessments (SRA), competency assessments, and ongoing and daily supervision of employees.
  • Chapter 4- APHL recommended that no additional changes be made to physical and cyber security requirements. Public health laboratories have several physical barriers in place, including multiple layers of locks, cameras, security personnel and fingerprint/card scanners. Laboratories also have barriers to protect against cyber attacks.

Also of concern were the cost implications of certain FESAP recommendations. With public health funding in decline, recommendations that would require an outlay of additional funding for security would cut into budgets that already have been trimmed to the bone in previous rounds of cuts. In fact, many public health laboratories may no longer be able to afford to participate in the Laboratory Response Network (LRN), the nation’s system for responding to, detecting and identifying biological, chemical and other emerging threats. Moreover, improvements in biosafety and biosecurity have been achieved under existing regulations.

This is the second time APHL representatives have appeared before FESAP in recent months. Dr. Michael Pentella, associate director of Disease Control, Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory, and former APHL staff member, Ms. Rosemary Humes, described the role of public health laboratories in protecting the nation from threats earlier in 2011. APHL looks forward to a continuing, productive dialogue with FESAP, one that expands upon the shared views evident at this most recent meeting.

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