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White House orders U.S. labs to take inventory of infectious agents

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The White House has ordered federally funded labs working with infectious agents to conduct an immediate inventory of the pathogens in their labs and review their safety and security protocols, according to a memo released on Thursday.

The order follows a trio of high-profile mishaps at federal labs in recent months, including the mishandling of anthrax and bird flu by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the discovery of decades-old samples of smallpox in a U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The memo, dated Aug. 19, was sent by the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to all federal agencies that conduct life-sciences research. A notice, which links to the memo, was posted on the OSTP website on Thursday. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/08/28/ensuring-biosafety-and-biosecurity-us-laboratories)

In the memo, the White House calls for all federal labs that handle animal or plant infectious agents or toxins to conduct a "Safety Stand-Down," a month-long period in which senior laboratory staff must review safety and security protocols and develop a plan to routinely inventory the agents they handle.

Longer term, federal and outside expert committees are called to review and make specific recommendations to strengthen oversight of biosafety at government labs as well as at labs that receive government funding.

In addition to the memo, the notice posted on Thursday "strongly" urges non-federal scientists who work with infectious agents "to participate voluntarily" in implementing the steps outlined in our memo."

In a blog post released separately, NIH Director Dr Francis Collins announced that NIH was "taking remedial action and precautionary steps to improve our lab safety protocols and procedures, minimize the risk of recurrence, and increase timely reporting of potential problems."

Collins declared September National Biosafety Stewardship Month in which scientists would review biosafety policies, conduct inventories of infectious agents and reinforce biosafety training. He urged grant recipients to do the same.

The moves may serve to placate lawmakers, who in a fiery congressional hearing last month over lapses at the CDC repeatedly asked expert witnesses whether more regulation was needed.

The incidents at the CDC involved the potential exposure of more than 80 staff members to live anthrax and a mix-up in a flu lab in which a harmless strain of bird flu was contaminated with a highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu strain and sent to a poultry lab at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CDC has said it is reviewing existing laboratory protocols, taking steps to improve record-keeping and compliance, testing for cross-contamination before samples are transferred within or outside CDC, and "providing additional extensive training" of lab staff.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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