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University labs inspected for bioterror risks

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the wake of the recent anthrax attacks, federal officials Tuesday began an inspection program of university facilities across the United States that conduct research on viruses and bacteria with the potential to be used in bioterror, a university official said.

A team of five inspectors from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began their inspection at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston on Tuesday morning, university spokesman Tom Curtis told CNN in a phone interview.

The inspectors are conducting a comprehensive investigation to assess the security of biological samples and computer data, Curtis said. The investigation "could last up to four weeks," Curtis said. "It amounts to an audit."

The investigation was not publicly announced, and inspectors told officials at the University of Texas the findings would not be made public. "If it was reported, it would be at a congressional hearing and they suspected the hearing would be private," Curtis said.

However, the inspection marks a new and extensive campaign by the federal government to eliminate the risk of future bioterror attacks. There are more than 200 universities registered with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to perform research on potentially dangerous viruses and bacteria.

Ben St. John, a spokesman at the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said he had "no comment" when asked about the investigation. Asked why, St. John said such an issue is "a matter of national security."

Curtis said the university is freely cooperating with the investigation. "I don't question the need for someone to look into dangerous materials and make sure they are being handled appropriately," he said.

The HHS' Office of the Inspector General contacted the university last week about conducting the inspections, Curtis said.

Lee Thompson, the university's Safety Officer for Bio-Containment, said he could not comment on the activities of the inspectors, nor confirm or deny if they were there. However, Thompson said he favored such inspections.

"If we can find someone who can help us improve any of our safety processes, then we would welcome that," he said.

The University of Texas Medical Branch is internationally known for its research to develop cures for some of the deadliest diseases caused by viruses and bacteria, including yellow fever and encephalitis, Curtis said.

The university has not done research on anthrax, nor does it have any anthrax bacteria at any of its facilities, Curtis added. Early next year the university will begin construction of a "level 4" lab, the highest biosafety classification. That would make it the only academic institution in the world with a lab with clearance to handle the most deadly viruses and bacteria, Curtis said.

Curtis said there was no indication that the FBI or the HHS inspector's work was connected to the criminal investigation into anthrax.

Efforts to confirm reports by The Christian Science Monitor and the Houston Chronicle that the investigation was requested by Congress were unsuccessful.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, said he could not immediately confirm that the investigation had been requested by Congress. But he said Congress has held many secure briefings with HHS on the security of laboratories around the country since the anthrax attacks.


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