Lance Cpl. Nicholas Taylor, a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Specialist with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, trains at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adam Dublinske)

GAO: Actions Needed to Improve Management of Defense Dept.’s Biosafety and Biosecurity Program

The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress by taking a number of actions to address the 35 recommendations from the Army’s 2015 investigation report on the inadvertent shipments of live Bacillus anthracis (anthrax). However, DOD has not yet developed an approach to measure the effectiveness of these actions, the Government Accountability Office found in a new report.

As of March, DOD reports 18 recommendations as having been implemented and 17 as having actions under way to implement them. These actions are part of a broader effort to improve biosafety, biosecurity, and overall program management. For example, in March 2016, DOD established the Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk Program Office to assist in overseeing the BSAT Biosafety and Biosecurity Program and implementation of the recommendations. GAO said that measuring the effectiveness of each implemented recommendation would help better determine if the actions taken are working, if there are unintended consequences, or if further action is necessary.

The Secretary of the Army, as DOD’s Executive Agent, has implemented a BSAT Biosafety and Biosecurity Program to improve management, coordination, safety, and quality assurance for the DOD BSAT enterprise. However, DOD has not developed a strategy and implementation plan for managing the program. Without a strategy and implementation plan, Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, and DOD’s laboratory facilities that currently produce and handle BSAT may be unclear about DOD’s strategy to harmonize BSAT operations to ensure safety, security, and standardization of procedures throughout DOD’s BSAT enterprise, GAO found.

The Army has not fully institutionalized measures to ensure that its biological test and evaluation (T&E) mission remains independent from its biological research and development (R&D) mission so that its T&E procedures are objective and reliable, GAO said. In April 2016, the Army directed the transfer of the operational T&E mission from West Desert Test Center-Life Sciences Division at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, to Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, Maryland. The Army issued a memorandum of agreement between the two entities to lay out roles and responsibilities for test processes and procedures. However, the memorandum does not distinguish T&E from R&D mission requirements, and does not contain guidelines to mitigate risks associated with potential conflicts of interest between the R&D and T&E missions. Without these measures, GAO found, there is a potential risk to the independence of the T&E mission.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 required DOD to report by Feb. 1, 2017, on the feasibility of consolidating BSAT facilities within a unified command, partnering with industry for the production of BSAT in lieu of maintaining such capabilities within the Army, and whether such operations should be transferred to another government or commercial laboratory. DOD has not completed this required study and evaluation of its BSAT infrastructure which, when complete, will affect the future infrastructure of the BSAT Biosafety and Biosecurity Program. Further, DOD officials have no estimated time frames for when DOD will complete the study and evaluation. Without time frames for completing the study and evaluation, DOD is unable to provide decision makers with key information on its infrastructure requirements, GAO found.

GAO recommends that DOD develop an approach to assess the effectiveness of the recommendations, a strategy and implementation plan for its BSAT Biosafety and Biosecurity Program, measures to ensure independence, and time frames to complete a study. DOD concurred with all four of GAO’s recommendations.

Read the full GAO report

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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