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Pathogens: Biodefense Lab Planned For Kansas Could Hurt Cattle, NRC Report Says

by Glenn Hess
November 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 47

The Department of Homeland Security is underestimating the risk that a dangerous animal pathogen could accidentally be released from a proposed biodefense laboratory in the heart of Kansas cattle country, a panel of scientists said last week.

A report by a committee of the National Research Council says there is a nearly 70% chance over the 50-year lifetime of the planned National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility that a highly contagious animal illness, such as foot-and-mouth disease, could escape and infect livestock.

In 2008, DHS announced that it would replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the tip of New York’s Long Island, with a $650 million lab in Manhattan, Kan., home of Kansas State University. But Congress last year blocked funding for the facility’s construction until federal authorities and NRC analyzed safety concerns.

NRC says an earlier DHS study, completed in June, failed to adequately consider the risk and potential impact of an outbreak. “Roughly 9.5% of the U.S. cattle inventory lies within a 200-mile radius of the facility,” the NRC report notes. “Given that the disease [foot-and-mouth] is highly contagious and that the chance of its escape is not zero, rigorous and robust regional and national mitigation strategies … are needed before the facility opens.”

Ultimately, policymakers will need to decide whether the risks are acceptable, says panel chair Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville.


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