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Biodefense Lab Plans Revised

Biosecurity: Homeland Security says design changes would reduce risks of research on animal pathogens

by Glenn Hess
March 12, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 11

Credit: Department of Homeland Security
An artist’s conception of the on-hold National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan, Kan.
An artistic rendition of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility slated for construction at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.
Credit: Department of Homeland Security
An artist’s conception of the on-hold National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan, Kan.

Modifications to the design of a proposed animal disease research laboratory in Kansas would reduce the risk of an accidental release of dangerous pathogens to nearly zero, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But with Congress and the White House unsure about how to pay for the facility, there is no plan to begin construction.

In a risk assessment issued on March 2, DHS estimates that the probability is now only 0.11% that a highly contagious animal pathogen, such as foot-and-mouth disease, could escape sometime during the projected 50-year life span of the proposed facility, even in the event of an earthquake or tornado.

In 2010, a National Research Council study found “several major shortcomings” in the lab’s original design. NRC determined that there was a 70% chance that an accidental release would occur and infect livestock, causing as much as $50 million in economic damage. Those findings prompted DHS to revise the facility’s design, and Congress subsequently directed the department to conduct a new risk analysis.

The laboratory—the National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF)—will study foreign animal diseases at a site adjacent to Kansas State University, in Manhattan. The facility, estimated to cost up to $1 billion, is intended to replace the outdated Plum Island Animal Disease Center, near New York’s Long Island.

The revised NBAF design “is sound and incorporates best practices used in other animal and zoonotic pathogen laboratory facilities that operate safely,” says Tara O’Toole, head of the DHS Science & Technology Directorate.

Last year, President Barack Obama asked Congress to provide $150 million for the project, but lawmakers approved only $50 million—not enough to begin construction. Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal does not seek any money for lab construction.

On Feb. 15, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House Committee on Homeland Security that because of budget constraints, the Administration is reassessing the scope and cost of the project. But she predicted that NBAF will be built.

Critics have argued that NBAF is unnecessary because it would duplicate the research functions of other federal biodefense labs.



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