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U.S. House panel requests probe of federal labs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional committee investigating the mishandling of anthrax at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked a federal watchdog agency on Thursday to review U.S. lab procedures for handling dangerous pathogens.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the House Energy and Commerce Committee called for GAO to provide details about current federal lab policies and procedures and guidance on whether agencies that run biosecurity labs have undertaken efforts to assess and improve their practices.

The committee is looking into a series of lapses at CDC labs and other facilities, including the potential exposure of more than 80 lab workers to live anthrax bacteria at the CDC in Atlanta, the accidental release of a deadly strain of bird flu and the discovery of vials containing smallpox at the National Institutes of Health campus outside Washington.

Among the measures lawmakers are weighing is whether to charge an outside agency with setting and policing new lab security standards.

"Recently, there have been several highly publicized reports of federal laboratories experiencing lapses in the management of dangerous pathogens, prompting concern that these incidents may not be isolated events," said the letter, which was signed by three Republicans and three Democrats including U.S. Representative Fred Upton, the panel's Republican chairman.

"It is vitally important to maintain biosafety and biosecurity protocols at federal laboratories," it added.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Beech)

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