Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Wall Street Journal

Report questions safety of planned biodefense lab

Posted: November 19, 2010
Originally Published: November 15, 2010

TOPEKA, Kan. — A new report contends that federal officials have underestimated the risks associated with building a new lab in northeast Kansas that will study dangerous animal diseases that can be passed to humans.

The National Research Council report criticizes placing the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, a college town in the heart of cattle country. The new lab would replace an aging one on Plum Island, N.Y., about 100 miles east of New York City.

The DHS says the lab, which it refers to as the NBAF, will be safe.

But the research council notes in its report released Monday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security itself estimates there is about a 2 percent chance each year that a pathogen could be released.

The research council calculates that based on DHS figures, there is a 70 percent chance a leaked pathogen could cause an infection within the next 50 years.

DHS spokesman Chris Ortman said the calculation "was based on a cumulative worst-case scenario" and did not consider any safety measures the DHS will incorporate during design and construction of the lab.

"DHS will not build or operate the NBAF unless it can be done in a safe manner," Ortman said.

Still, Kansas' congressional delegation issued a statement Monday expressing confidence that the facility "will be the safest research laboratory in the world."

But the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, called a Homeland Security assessment of the lab's safety that was completed in June "not entirely adequate or valid." Ronald Atlas, the chairman of the committee that issued the report, later described the DHS assessment as "incomplete."

The current laboratory is located on an isolated, 840-acre island 100 miles east of New York.

A Long Island-based environmentalist and lawmaker both said the report suggests moving the lab off of Plum Island would be a mistake.

"The report reads like the premise of the next Steve King novel, only this would be non-fiction," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "Critical gaps including the lack of rapid detection of the release of pathogens, impacts of tornados and assessing risks of infection from air borne exposures paints truly frightening picture even for the hardiest among us."

Rep. Timothy Bishop reiterated his stance that the cost of relocation should dissuade federal officials from moving ahead. There are estimates Plum Island could fetch $50 to $80 million, but Bishop said building the new facility would cost 10 times that much. "The notion that the new project could be funded with the proceeds from Plum Island is wishful thinking in the extreme," he said.

Because the island is a potential target for those who might want to steal dangerous pathogens or wreak havoc, visitors must undergo FBI background checks and all bags are inspected before anyone is permitted onto a ferry for the 1.5-mile trip.

The laboratory is modern and would not look out of place on any college campus, but the rest of the island is largely undeveloped with freshwater marshes, pristine beaches and seals resting on huge rocks just offshore. There is also an 1869 lighthouse (no longer in use) and buildings from a U.S. Army base that closed after World War II.

The National Research Council specifically avoided saying whether the new lab should be built in Kansas or making other policy recommendations, and it commends the DHS for completing its assessment in a relatively short amount of time, calling it "a solid starting point." But it says in its 146-page report that the site — in the heart of cattle country and near Kansas State's football stadium — adds to the risks.

"Ultimately, policymakers will need to decide whether the risks are acceptable relating to constructing and operating NBAF in Manhattan," the research council says.

Ortman said the agency will ensure that before the lab begins operations, "all biosafety and biosecurity requirements have been met."

"NBAF will be a modern research facility that will protect the U.S. from threats to our animal agriculture, food supply, and public health.," Ortman said.

Kansas officials said some of the questions raised by the report would arise no matter where the new lab were built. Tom Thornton, the president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Biosciences Authority, said the DHS assessment was never meant to be the final word on the lab's safety.

"We've got plenty of time to incorporate procedures into this facility," Thornton said.

The new lab would replace an aging one on Plum Island, N.Y., and Congress ordered the research council's report in agreeing to provide $32 million last year for planning. Construction is supposed to start in 2012, with operations transferred from Plum Island by as early as 2017.

The lab would research foot-and-mouth and other dangerous animal diseases that can be passed to humans. Kansas State already conducts similar research at the Biosecurity Research Center, which is located near where the new lab will be constructed.

The National Research Council's report notes that the site is near Kansas State's College of Veterinary Medicine and that almost 10 percent of the nation's nearly 95 million cattle are within 200 miles of the site, as are substantial swine operations and meatpacking plants.

The report notes that the existing lab is on an uninhabited island, while the new one would be in an area "that has a large human population and is very close to susceptible animals."

"The large population that gathers for football games and other events is potentially susceptible to infections," the report says. "Additionally, the presence of large numbers of vehicles during public events increases the odds that some will transport a released pathogen outside of the area."

Kansas' congressional delegation said the research council's report doesn't account for plans Homeland Security officials are developing to ensure safety, adding, "These efforts should not be discounted."