Security in Biological Laboratories

17 Jun

A few years back, inspectors from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) visited several BSL-4 laboratories throughout the United States to evaluate the security at the sites. A Bio-Safety Level 4 lab handles the most deadly viruses; common sense would dictate that the means to secure these viruses would be commensurate with their lethality. That was not the case. Some of the vulnerabilities noted at various labs were (World at Risk, 2008, p. 4):

• No barriers or fencing – in some instances inspectors could walk right up to the building housing the viruses;

• People strolling into the building through an unsecured loading dock;

• Inadequate camera coverage of the perimeter;

• A simple swing arm across the roadway to enforce vehicle access control;

• Unarmed security forces;

• Open windows into a portion of the facility housing the most lethal viruses, allowing easy surveillance from outside the perimeter.

All told, the GAO visited five BSL-4 labs and evaluated them against fifteen separate benchmarks. Two of them only received scores of 3/15 and 4/15, respectively. Despite this dismal performance, the United States is actually the leader in laboratory security (World at Risk, 2008, p. 5).

I’m not going to be a generic “expert” here and tell you that this is a grave danger because evil terrorists are plotting a full-scale assault on a BSL-4 laboratory – far from it. If you’ve read my previous postings, particularly my first on threat analysis, you’ll know I believe many warnings are issued without due interpretation.

Intentions often do not match the capabilities of a group. Al-Qaeda has not yet demonstrated the ability to acquire, develop and weaponize biological weapons. Their online manuals are amateurish and inadequate for their intentions. However, this may change very quickly. One of the most prescient points I’ve ever seen in a government document is this one:

“[G]iven the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists,” (World at Risk, 2008, p. 11).

Why are there such glaring security deficiencies at BSL-4 laboratories? Lack of standards: “Select agent regulations do not mandate that specific perimeter security controls be present at BSL-4 labs, resulting in a significant difference in perimeter security between the nation’s five labs,” (GAO, 2009, p. 8).

This is inexcusable on two levels. First, because the Department of Homeland Security has not mandated these security standards. Second, because the officials at the laboratories have not taken steps, on their own, to improve security. At the very least, hire an outside company to do a physical security survey and vulnerability assessment of your facility!

This is a very sobering introduction to our risk from biological weapons. Just because security is not standardized and is generally poor at some facilities does not mean biological agents will walk off into the sunset. Biological agents require skill to utilize – Hollywood and the mass media have created a myth, whereby any steely-eyed moron can wipe a city off the map with a biological agent. The reality is much different.

In future, posts, I’ll delve deeper into this issue as we explore World at Risk.


Graham, B., Talent, J., Allison, G., Cleveland, R., Rademaker, S., Roemer, T., Sherman, W., Sokolski, H. & Verma, R. (2008). World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. New York, NY: Random House.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2009). BSL-4 Laboratories Improved Perimeter Security Despite Limited Action
by CDC
. Retrieved from

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Posted by on June 17, 2011 in WMD Analysis


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