Proposed animal disease lab seen posing risks

by Eric Schroeder
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TOPEKA, KAS. — A new report from the National Research Council has cast doubt on the safety of building the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (N.B.A.F.) in Manhattan, Kas. Among concerns is a finding in the N.R.C. report calculating a 70% chance exists that a leaked pathogen may cause an infection within the next 50 years, impacting the economy by an estimated $9 billion to $50 billion.

The N.R.C.’s report comes in response to the Department of Homeland Security’s 417-page N.B.A.F. risk assessment of the proposed laboratory, which is expected to study dangerous foreign animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, as well as diseases deadly to humans that may be transmitted between animals and people.

The N.R.C., which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, said the risks and costs of a pathogen being released accidently from the facility may be significantly higher than indicated by the D.H.S. assessment.

“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 D.H.S. risk assessment because of a lack of data and experience,” said Ronald Atlas, chairman of the N.R.C. committee, and co-director of the Center for Health Preparedness at the University of Louisville. “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.”

In response to the N.R.C.’s findings, which were requested by Congress, Kansas State University and the Kansas Bioscience Authority issued a statement calling the proposed facility “an urgent national priority” while questioning some of the methodology of the N.R.C.’s review.

“In a review of the risk assessment, the National Research Council committee has offered positive and negative input to D.H.S., and D.H.S. is moving forward with the benefit of both since the risk assessment is iterative and will be augmented by additional input and data moving forward,” said Ron Trewyn, Ph.D., vice-president of research at K.S.U., and Tom Thornton, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. “We are, however, compelled to raise serious concerns about certain methodologies used by the N.R.C. committee in its review, including ignoring even standard mitigation techniques and redundancies used in labs every day.

“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. This could set U.S. science back by decades, keeping our research locked in the 20th century even as China, Australia, and others move full-speed ahead in developing 21st century vaccines and other disease interventions in modern facilities.”

While pointing out some of the shortcomings of the D.H.S.’s report, the N.R.C. indicated a need exists for a biocontainment facility in the United States, but it did not say whether the new laboratory should be built in Kansas and did not make other policy recommendations.

The new laboratory would replace an aging one in Plum Island, N.Y., and Congress ordered the research council’s report after agreeing to provide $32 million last year for planning. Construction on the laboratory is expected to commence in 2012, with operations transferred from Plum Island by as early as 2017. The facility would be the world’s third-largest Biosafety-Level 4 Pathogen laboratory. The other two facilities are in Australia and Canada.

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