Can the U.S. Afford a New Biodefense Lab?

Hard times. DHS official Tara O'Toole warns tight budgets pit new labs against research funding.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The United States faces a stark choice between funding a new state-of-the-art laboratory for agricultural biodefense and paying for ongoing research on the topic, according to the government's top biosecurity research official.

"We are hard up against it now; you can't do research without modern facilities, but the money for modern facilities comes out of the same piggy bank that pays for research," Tara O'Toole, head of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Science and Technology Directorate, this morning told a newly-created study panel of the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council (NRC).

DHS has asked the panel to examine the capabilities of—and possible alternatives to—the long-planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced that it was requesting no new money in its 2013 budget for NBAF, which could cost $1 billion and is supposed to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. That announcement came amidst growing opposition to the new facility, which would work with the most dangerous agricultural pathogens, and after Congress repeatedly provided less money for planning and building NBAF than DHS had requested. In light of those setbacks, DHS officials decided they needed an outside panel to take a fresh look at the project.

In her opening remarks to the NRC panel, O'Toole warned that "the entire financial landscape of the country is changing" and that DHS is "facing the first budget cuts [it has had] since it was created in 2002. There is not a lot of money to be had in the department as a whole." The agency's research and development budget, she noted, has already been cut in half over the last few years.

As a result, O'Toole said, there is growing "tension" between building new facilities and sustaining research. DHS is already struggling to fund scientists working at another new highly-secure DHS laboratory, the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which works with human pathogens. "We are having a very hard time maintaining NBACC, much less paying for research," O'Toole said, adding that "this tension is being felt throughout the government. … I want you to understand that this tension will continue to exist."

Congress had initially hoped to finance NBAF by selling Plum Island, which has beaches and sea views coveted by developers. "At the time that seemed like a fine plan," O'Toole said. But plunging real estate values and the rising cost of dismantling and cleaning up the New York lab has changed the bottom line, she said. Any proceeds from the sale "are not going to pay for NBAF as envisioned," O'Toole said.

To help DHS "figure out how to deal with this dilemma," O'Toole said the agency is asking the NRC panel to consider three options:

  • Build NBAF as designed. "The design is now 75% complete," O'Toole noted.
  • Build a scaled-down version. It's possible that "may help with finances" in the short run, O'Toole said, but might "in the end not save the nation much."
  • Don't build NBAF and "see if we can get through the coming decade with the aging facilities we have now at Plum Island."

The committee hopes to release its recommendations by the end of June. But even if the government decides to move ahead with NBAF, it would take years to build. In the meantime, O'Toole said DHS is pursuing agreements with Canada and Australia that would give U.S. scientists emergency access to bio-safety level 4 (BSL-4) agricultural facilities, which are designed to contain the most dangerous pathogens. "If push came to shove, we could use those BSL-4 facilities" to test tissue samples or animals in the event of a dangerous disease outbreak. But those labs are no replacement for NBAF, she noted; Canada's facility, for example, can handle just one cow at a time.

The agency is also exploring how to operate Plum Island over the next decade. "Just to get through the next 7 years of operations, should we build NBAF, [Plum Island] is going to need a lot of money," O'Toole said. "It has a lot of worrying maintenance needs, including revamping of the sewage treatment plant." There are no plans, however, to transform Plum Island into a BSL-4 laboratory even if NBAF is shelved. That option, O'Toole emphasized, has received "total rejection … from the people of New York."