Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

Comment: This November 16 article should have stated that a calculation that there is a nearly 70 percent chance a pathogen could escape the planned Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas was made by a National Research Council panel based on data from a U.S. Homeland Security Department risk assessment. The NRC panel also estimated economic losses of between $9 billion and $50 billion from a postulated foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

WASHINGTON — An expert panel said yesterday the U.S. Homeland Security Department has not adequately gauged the potential risks associated with a proposed multimillion-dollar infectious-disease research laboratory in Kansas (see GSN, May 20 ).

(Nov. 16) – A rendering of the U.S. National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan, Kansas. In a report issued yesterday, the National Research Council said a government safety evaluation for the proposed facility contained “several major shortcomings” (U.S. Homeland Security Department image).

There are “several major shortcomings” in a department risk assessment of its planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility near Manhattan, Kansas, according to a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The proposed site is roughly 120 miles west of Kansas City.

The facility’s construction is expected to cost between $500 million and $700 million. The 520,000-square-foot center, slated to begin construction in 2012, would study highly infectious animal-borne pathogens, some of which could pose a threat to humans. It would replace the Plum Island Disease Center located near Long Island, New York, which was established in 1937.

The new site would also be the world’s third Biosafety-Level 4 Pathogen laboratory to work with large animals. The other two such facilities are in Australia and Canada.

The council calculated that based on estimates in the DHS assessment, which wrapped up in June, that there is a nearly 70 percent chance a disease would escape the laboratory during its planned 50-year operational lifespan. The DHS report estimated the economic losses from a postulated foot-and-mouth disease outbreak at $9 billion to $50 billion.

However, yesterday’s 146-page NRC analysis states that the actual amount could be “significantly higher” because the department’s assessment did not consider the dangers associated with daily upkeep of large animal holding rooms.

The earlier evaluation was also criticized for inadequately accounting for the planned facility’s proximity to Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine clinics, where large numbers of sick animals are treated, as well as the university’s football stadium, which has a capacity over 55,000. The large animal and human populations at those sites would be potentially susceptible to infections with a zoonotic agent, the report states. About 9.5 percent of the entire U.S. cattle inventory is raised within 200 miles of the Manhattan site.

The DHS assessment also did not account for the lack of adequate medical care in the surrounding area to deal with a potential disease outbreak, the analysis states. There is one medical center nearby and it lacks the resources to handle such an event, according to the report.

“Building a facility that is capable of large animal work on a scale greater than other high-containment laboratories presents new and unknown risks that could not be accounted for in the DHS risk assessment because of a lack of data and experience,” Ronald Atlas, who chaired the research council committee, said yesterday during a telephone press conference.

“The risk assessment should be viewed as a starting point, and given more time, it could have progressed further. As more information emerges, an updated analysis could be appropriate,” said Atlas, co-director of the Center for Health Preparedness at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Despite its critique, the newly minted report does not question the basic requirement for such a research center.

“There is a need for a facility like the NBAF to be constructed and operated in the United States,” it states.

In July the Government Accountability Office released a report that said the Homeland Security Department had used “inadequate” site information in its NBAF selection process and labeled the decision to place the new facility in a natural disaster-prone state as “scientifically indefensible.”

Federal auditors noted that the facility would be located in the heart of “tornado alley,” a region of the country prone to tornadoes.

Based on those concerns, Congress instructed the department to complete a site-specific “biosafety and biosecurity risk assessment” of the proposed laboratory before construction funds would be obligated. Lawmakers also directed the National Research Council to conduct an independent evaluation of that study to determine its adequacy and validity.

Atlas stressed that the council evaluated the project’s overall safety, not whether its location is appropriate, though the panel did take the location’s risk into account during its review.

The committee made no recommendations about whether or how the project should proceed, though individual panelists yesterday offered some suggestions about how the group’s concerns could be addressed.

While many of the general conclusions reached by the Homeland Security Department’s risk assessment were valid, the evaluation did not fully account for how the site’s BSL-3 agriculture laboratory and BSL-4 pathogen laboratory would operate; how pathogens might be released; and which animal populations might be exposed, according to Atlas.

Overall the NRC committee concluded that the government analysis lacked a “comprehensive” mitigation strategy, including an early-release detection system, for addressing major issues related to a pathogen release, he said.

The development of a contingency plan would have to be drawn up to address that concern, James Roth, a committee member and professor at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, told reporters.

The research council and Homeland Security agree that local and regional training for rapid responses to potential outbreaks would have to be increased, he added.

DHS spokesman Chris Ortman said the council’s 70 percent calculation for a potential disease outbreak “was based on a notional facility and did not account for any of the recommended mitigation measures that DHS has committed to incorporating into the final design.”

The department “will not build or operate the NBAF unless it can be done in a safe manner,” he added.

Local and federal proponents of the estimated $650 million dollar project were quick to criticize the 12-member panel’s findings.

The research council committee ignored standard mitigation techniques and safety redundancies incorporated into all research facilities, Ron Trewyn, vice president of research at Kansas State University, and Tom Thornton, president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said yesterday in a statement.

“This troubling approach is not only misleading and without precedent, it exaggerates risk to an extreme, nonsensical level that would call into question the entire American biocontainment research enterprise, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Trewyn said.

Meanwhile, the Sunflower State’s entire six-member congressional delegation issued a joint statement saying that construction of the facility “must move forward.”

The NRC study “is helpful to DHS as it continues in its design phase of the NBAF facility,” said the lawmakers, five Republicans and one Democrat. “However, we are concerned that some of the findings do not seem to account for mitigation and safety plans that DHS has already said would be put in place. These efforts should not be discounted.”

“We are confident this facility will be the safest research laboratory in the world and its mission is critical in order to protect our nation’s food supply,” the statement adds.

However, Representative Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Plum Island — home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center — voiced concerns about the safety and ultimate cost of the Kansas site.

“The National Research Council report confirms that DHS has not properly accounted for the significant risk that a dangerous animal pathogen could escape from NBAF into the heart of cattle country, with devastating consequences,” Bishop said today in a statement to Global Security Newswire. “DHS also has not properly accounted for the cost of the facility, which is spiraling towards a billion dollars.”

Congress budgeted $32 million last year for work on the facility. The majority of that funding is to go toward design and planning. President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal called for another $40 million for the proposed laboratory.

Atlas yesterday declined to say whether Congress should now release funds intended for the biodefense center, saying lawmakers should reach their own conclusions from the research council’s study.

He and other committee members also said their analysis made no judgment on what amount of risk pertaining to the facility would be acceptable.

“We did recognize that there’s a risk to not having a facility like this,” Roth told reporters. “There’s no zero risk. It will never be zero risk for building it and it’s also not zero risk for not building it.”