Panel Slams Review for Proposed Biodefense Megalab in Kansas

An expert panel today harshly criticized a federal study of the risks of building a giant new lab in Kansas to study the world's most dangerous animal pathogens. The report from the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) says a risk assessment by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has "several major shortcomings," including inadequate data for predicting the economic impact if highly contagious foot and mouth disease (FMD) virus were accidentally released and infected U.S. cattle.

DHS announced in 2005 that it planned to replace the old Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island with a facility on the U.S. mainland to study FMD and even more dangerous pathogens, such as Nipah virus. DHS considered six sites for the $450 million lab, and in late 2008 announced that it has chosen Manhattan, Kansas, to host the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). But last year, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) slammed DHS's risk assessment for the Kansas site as inadequate. Congress withheld construction funding until DHS redid the assessment and had it reviewed by the National Academies.

The panel, chaired by microbiologist Ron Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, supported the general concept of NBAF. Only two countries—Australia and Canada—now have a comparable animal disease lab, the report notes. "There is a need for a facility like the NBAF to be constructed and operated in the United States," the report says.

But the panel found many problems with the new DHS assessment, completed in June. Based on data in the DHS report, the NRC panel estimated that there is a 70% chance over 50 years that FMD would escape from the lab and infect livestock, resulting in an economic impact of between $9 billion and $50 billion. But while DHS came to "many legitimate conclusions," the NRC panel found, its analysis "is not entirely adequate or valid."

One thing DHS did right this time, according to the panel, was to use an aerosol dispersion model rather than a model for studying radiological dispersion to simulate the spread of airborne FMD viral particles. This showed the biggest risk is not to distant livestock but to nearby cattle sales operations. But the assessment was "overoptimistic" about how quickly cattle farms could cull herds if FMD escaped, the report found.

DHS also failed to adequately consider the threat to people and animals at nearby Kansas State University or to spectators at its football stadium. The assessment overlooked the risks of a release posed by cleaning large animal pens, the NRC report says. Another concern is that Manhattan lacks the clinical isolation facilities and infectious diseases experts it would need should a deadly pathogen infect lab staff members or the local community. The panel also questioned DHS's decision to save money by not installing redundant HEPA air filters.

Despite the many criticisms, the panel calls DHS's review and its own work a "heroic effort" done on a tight timeframe. The assessment is a "huge step forward" and "a solid starting point" for NBAF, "wherever it is located," the report says.

In a call with reporters, Atlas and other committee members declined to say whether the 70% risk over 50 years—however flawed that estimate may be—is acceptable. The panel also declined to comment on whether DHS should proceed with NBAF's design and construction while it improves the risk assessment. "Policymakers ... will have to figure out what to do," Atlas told reporters.

Kansas's congressional delegation released a statement saying that construction "must move forward." The NRC report is "helpful to DHS," the statement says, but "we are concerned that some of the findings do not seem to account for mitigation and safety plans that DHS has already said will be put in place."

*This item has been updated and corrected, 15 November, 5:00 p.m. The story has been revised to correct a statement that DHS found that there is a 70% chance over 50 years that the FMD virus would be released from NBAF and infect livestock. NRC estimated that risk based on data in the DHS report.

In a statement today, DHS took issue with the 70%, noting that the NRC committee did not take into account "mitigation" steps, such as emergency response plans, that could lower that figure. "The National Academies' calculation 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. DHS will not build or operate the NBAF unless it can be done in a safe manner," the DHS statement said.