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High-Containment Laboratories: Comprehensive and Up-to-Date Policies and Stronger Oversight Needed

GAO-16-566T Published: Apr 20, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 19, 2016.
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What GAO Found

Most of the 8 departments and 15 agencies that GAO reviewed had policies that were not comprehensive, and some departments and agencies had policies that were not up to date. Specifically, policies at 5 departments and 9 agencies were not comprehensive because they did not contain all six elements that GAO identified as key for managing biological agents in high-containment laboratories. These elements are incident reporting, roles and responsibilities, training, inventory control, inspections, and requiring adherence to or referencing leading laboratory safety guidance. Three of the 8 departments and 5 of the 15 agencies did not have policies. In addition, as of December 2015, 2 departments and 5 agencies did not have up-to-date policies. Comprehensive policies that contain all six key elements and that are reviewed and updated regularly would help departments reduce the risk of mismanaging hazardous biological agents and ensure that their policies convey consistent requirements for oversight, reflect current guidance, and address emerging threats.

The departments and agencies GAO reviewed were primarily using inspections to oversee their high-containment laboratories, but some of them were not routinely reporting inspection results, laboratory incidents, and other oversight activities, such as trend analyses, to senior officials. Specifically, 3 of the 8 departments and 13 of the 14 agencies that were operating high-containment laboratories at the time of GAO’s review conducted routine laboratory inspections. Of those departments and agencies that routinely inspected laboratories, 1 department and 5 agencies did not conduct trend analyses of inspection results; senior officials at 5 departments and 8 agencies did not routinely receive inspection results; and senior officials at 4 departments did not routinely receive incident reports. These departments and agencies typically did not report this information because there was no requirement for them to do so. Routinely analyzing inspection results and incident reports and sending this information to senior officials—consistent with federal internal control standards for monitoring—would help them identify laboratory safety trends, determine whether safety lapses reflect systemic issues, and make necessary improvements.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Defense (DOD) had a number of serious laboratory safety lapses in 2014 and 2015 and were making progress in implementing recommendations from the reviews of these lapses. As of November 2015, HHS agencies—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—reported implementing 91 and 6 recommendations, respectively, and were taking steps to implement others, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported implementing all of its recommendations. DOD reported implementing one recommendation from its review and was taking steps to implement others. HHS and DOD have developed plans to track implementation of these recommendations, but CDC’s, DOD’s, and Army’s plans lacked some implementation time frames. Plans that include time frames are consistent with federal internal control standards and leading practices for program management and would give HHS and DOD better assurance that they can implement these recommendations in a timely manner and assess their progress in doing so.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's March 2016 report, entitled High-Containment Laboratories: Comprehensive and Up-to-Date Policies and Stronger Oversight Mechanisms Needed to Improve Safety, GAO-16-305.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or or Marcia Crosse at (202) 512-7114 or


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Agricultural researchBest practicesBiological agentsDisease controlInternal controlsInventory controlLaboratoriesLaboratory safetyPesticidesProgram managementReporting requirementsHigh-containment laboratories