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Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity in U.S. Laboratories

Nearly every day, the American public is reminded of the critical role that life-sciences researchers and public health workers play in mitigating the threat of infectious diseases. Whether these diseases arise naturally in the United States or in other parts of the world, as is the case with the current unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, or are deliberately released to cause harm here at home, as occurred with the anthrax attacks in 2001, U.S. government scientists are charged with confronting threats to the health and well-being of the citizens, economy, and security of the United States. Working with pathogens in the laboratory is vital to ensuring that the United States and the global community possess a robust set of tools—such as drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines—to counter the ever evolving threat of infectious diseases. That’s why, when we learned earlier this summer of several incidents within the Nation’s premier laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, we immediately sought meaningful measures to address the underlying causes and reduce the risk that such incidents would occur again in the future.

To this end, on August 19, 2014, the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy sent a joint memo to all federal departments and agencies involved in life-sciences research urging them to take immediate and longer-term steps aimed at addressing the underlying causes of the recent laboratory incidents and strengthening overall biosafety and biosecurity at federal facilities. We urged all relevant federal facilities—including extramural facilities that receive federal funding—to conduct a “Safety Stand-Down” in the near-term, during which senior leaders would review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols, and would develop and implement plans for sustained inventory monitoring.  Over the longer-term, we have established parallel processes by which federal and non-federal committees would review and generate specific recommendations to strengthen the government's biosafety and biosecurity practices and oversight system for federally-funded activities. We look forward to assessing and acting upon the recommendations as they are developed.  You can read the full memorandum here.

The Administration takes seriously any issue that has the potential to place scientists, healthcare workers, or the American public at risk of accidental exposure to infectious pathogens. Therefore, in addition to this guidance, we strongly encourage non-federal scientists who work with infectious diseases to participate voluntarily alongside their federal colleagues in implementing the steps outlined in our memo.  Together, the life sciences community and its stakeholders can and will continue to have a safe and effective infectious-disease research enterprise of which the American people can be proud, and which will continue to provide the best therapies and other preventive capabilities here and around the world.

Lisa Monaco is Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counterterrorism & Deputy National Security Advisor

Dr. John Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy