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Watch Those Pathogens

Oversight of pathogen research in the US isn't as strong as it could be, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Federal Select Agent Program, which is managed by both the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, oversees labs that handle dangerous pathogens like the Ebola virus or anthrax bacterium. As ScienceInsider notes, it came under scrutiny in 2014 after a string of safety incidents involved pathogens: a vial of smallpox was uncovered in an unsecured Food and Drug Administration storage space, anthrax was improperly stored at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and influenza samples were mishandled.

Those blunders led Congress to ask the GAO to look into how the federal government oversees pathogen research, ScienceInsider adds. The White House released its own biosafety recommendations in 2015.

As it notes in its new report, the GAO found the Federal Select Agent Program "does not fully meet our key elements of effective oversight" and makes 11 recommendations to improve the independence and transparency of the program, such as altering its organizational structure. Additionally, the report suggests that the program devise a plan to identify which lab activities pose the greatest safety and security risks to guide how it reviews labs.

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