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Published On: Mon, Jul 16th, 2012

A scaled-back ‘Plum Island’ Kansas lab would meet U.S. needs according to NRC report

Public domain photo/Keith Weller

A government-backed committee of the National Research Council issued a report Friday saying the United States would have adequate biosecurity protections even if plans for a proposed $1.14 billion lab in Kansas are scaled back.

In addition, the report says it is “imperative” that the U.S. build a large-animal biocontainment laboratory to protect animal and public health and the option of  keeping the current facility at Plum Island instead of building a new laboratory was rejected.

Construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, has been stalled by concerns that deadly animal diseases could escape and devastate agriculture. Some have called the facility a costly boondoggle according to Reuters.

The Department of Homeland Security asked the research council – which is part of the National Academy of Sciences – to study three options for the facility. They were to proceed with the Kansas plant, scale it back, or retain the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, New York.

The scope of the committee’s analysis was limited to examining the three options and explicitly excluded an assessment of specific site locations for the proposed laboratory facility; therefore, the report neither compares relative risks of the three options nor determines where foot-and-mouth disease research can be safely conducted.

According to a National Academy of Sciences news release Friday:

The report concludes that DHS’ first option — NBAF as currently designed — includes all components of the ideal laboratory infrastructure in a single location and has been designed to meet the current and anticipated future mission needs of DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.  However, the proposed facility also has drawbacks, including substantial costs associated with construction, operation, and management; and not leveraging existing capacity at other containment laboratories in the U.S.

Regarding the second option, the report finds that a partnership between a central national laboratory of reduced scope and size and a distributed laboratory network can effectively protect the United States from foreign animal and zoonotic diseases, potentially realize cost savings, reduce redundancies while increasing efficiencies, and enhance the cohesiveness of a national system of biocontainment laboratories.  However, the cost implications of reducing the scope and capacity of a central facility are not known.

In its assessment of the third option, the report says that maintaining the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and leveraging foreign laboratories for large animal Biosafety Level 4 needs would avoid the costs of constructing a new replacement facility.  However, the facilities at Plum Island do not meet current standards for high biocontainment.  Given the uncertainty over priorities of a foreign laboratory and logistical difficulties in an emergency, it would not be desirable for the United States to rely on international laboratories to meet these needs in the long term.

The report adds that because foot-and-mouth disease research remains critical for the U.S. animal health system, it will be essential to maintain the Plum Island facility until an alternative facility is authorized, constructed, commissioned, and approved for work with the virus.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran issued a joint statement Friday applauding the committee’s report. They called on DHS to move forward with acquiring the land in Manhattan and beginning construction.

“The NAS fittingly recognizes that the need for a centralized laboratory focused on research, diagnostics and surveillance is imperative. That laboratory should be NBAF, and it starts with construction of the central utility plant. We are pleased this promising review concludes any outstanding evaluations of NBAF,” they said.

However, an opponent of the plant, retired Kansas State physics and biology professor Tom Manney, said the top security lab needs to be offshore and not in the nation’s agricultural heartland for safety reasons.

Plans for the facility have raised concerns about security because it would be in the middle of so-called “Tornado Alley,” which critics say exposes it to damage and possible escape of pathogens.

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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