Public Health Preparedness & Response

APHL Briefs Experts on Biosecurity in Public Health Laboratories

By Sikha Singh, MHS, Specialist, Laboratory Response Network, APHL

APHL was invited to participate in the September 16th meeting of the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) to provide a perspective on how potential changes in biosecurity requirements would impact public health laboratories, especially those in the Laboratory Response Network (LRN). Dr. Michael Pentella, associate director of disease control at the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory, and Rosemary Humes, APHL’s senior advisor for scientific affairs, spoke to the group.

FESAP was created by the recently signed Executive Order on Optimizing the Security of Biological Select Agents and Toxins in the United States to provide advice to the Secretaries of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Select Agent Program security including:

  • The composition and potential reduction of the Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) list, including the development of “Tier 1 agents,” which pose the greatest risk for intentional misuse 
  • Measures to enhance reliability of personnel with access to Tier 1 BSAT 
  • Standards for physical and cyber security for facilities possessing Tier 1 BSAT 
  • Emerging policy issues relevant to the security of BSAT.

During the course of their presentation to the panel, Humes and Pentella highlighted the robust biosecurity and biosafety practices implemented within public health laboratories, as well as the distinction between public health laboratories and academic and production laboratories. Public health laboratories perform detection, surveillance and diagnostic testing that provides a front-line of defense against health threats in our nation. Their ability to detect agents of biological terrorism and public health significance plays a significant role in national security, as witnessed by the response of LRN laboratories to the 2001 anthrax events and to daily threat detection in all 50 states.

Pentella echoed the sentiments expressed in the comments provided by APHL on the current HHS list of select agents and toxins. He commented that existing biosecurity measures have proven successful and that increased biosecurity measures would be burdensome and costly to public health laboratories, impacting their ability to provide immediate testing and response capabilities to potential bioterrorism and other threats of public health significance. Pentella further emphasized the funding issues facing laboratories, particularly in light of economic constraints leading to furloughs and extensive budget cuts.

In response to the many questions raised by the panel, Pentella and Humes noted that current personnel controls are adequate and are further strengthened by regulatory requirements that specify stringent biosafety and biosecurity controls within public health laboratories. Laboratory directors and responsible officials remain empowered to make decisions necessary to maintain the integrity of their laboratories.

In a heartening conclusion to the discussion, Dr. Gerald Parker, DVM, PhD, MS, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, HHS stated that, “The LRN is one of best investments we’ve collectively made in bioterrorism preparedness and response.”

APHL and its members value opportunities to shed light on issues that affect public health laboratories and will continue to promote the role of these laboratories in detecting and responding to bioterrorism, emerging infectious diseases and other public health threats.

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