Academies Panel Suggests Scaling Down Agro-Defense Laboratory to Reduce Cost

Earlier this year, the Obama Administration suspended plans to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) after raising questions about whether the government could afford the $1 billion highly secure laboratory for studying dangerous animal diseases. Now, a new study from the U.S. National Academies suggests a way to rescue the facility: scaling it down and farming out portions of its proposed research to existing animal pathogen labs around the country.

Intended as a replacement for the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, NBAF has had many run-ins with controversy over the past several years. After the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chose Manhattan, Kansas, as the site for the lab, the decision was challenged by environmental groups in Kansas that were concerned about accidental or deliberate release of pathogens from the facility. Lawmakers in Texas—one of a number of states that lost a competition to host NBAF—accused DHS of biased decision-making. These and other challenges made it difficult for DHS to secure the required level of funding from Congress to begin construction.

As the political bickering escalated, the estimated cost of the facility ballooned from an initial $450 million to more than $1 billion by the end of last year, in part because of revised design requirements needed to make it safe from tornadoes. Federal officials decided that the price tag was simply unaffordable at a time of government-wide fiscal constraints, and the president's 2013 budget, released in February of this year, did not include a budget line for NBAF, effectively shelving the project.

However, DHS officials announced that they weren't scrapping NBAF for good. Instead, the agency asked the National Academies to study whether creating an NBAF was truly needed for protecting U.S. livestock and agriculture from foreign animal diseases and emerging pathogens. It also wanted the National Academies to examine whether NBAF's mission could be achieved by continuing with the Plum Island center or through reliance on biocontainment labs in other countries.

The academies study does not make an explicit recommendation. Instead, it concludes that neither the Plum Island option nor the option of relying on overseas labs can enable the United States to protect animal and public health in the long-term. One option that might work, according to the study report, would be to scale down NBAF by shrinking it in size and divesting it of activities that could be done at other U.S. labs.

"The committee looked at (various) proposed activities and whether that activity could be performed at another lab," says study chair Terry McElwain, a pathologist at Washington State University, Pullman. For instance, activities such as training, research on small animals, and vaccination research. "Those program components could be done at other laboratories," McElwain says.

The study did not delve into the cost reductions that could be achieved by reducing NBAF's scope. "A thorough analysis of the cost of scaling back needs to be done," McElwain says.