Proposed lab for study of animal diseases raises safety concerns
A new report requested by Congress is raising questions about the safety of a high-security laboratory that the federal government plans to build in Kansas to study dangerous animal diseases.
The National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, found "several major shortcomings" in a risk assessment conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. The agency is planning to open the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kan.
The lab would study a variety of dangerous animal diseases, including the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, which can sicken cattle, pigs, deer and other animals with cloven hooves. The lab would also study diseases that can be deadly to people when transmitted between animals and humans.
The lab would be the third "Biosafety-Lebel 4 Pathogen" facility that could work with large animals in the world. The other two are in Australia and Canada. It would replace the antiquated Plum Island Animal Disease Center, about two miles off Long Island. Such research has been prohibited on the U.S. mainland since 1937.
The report estimated that there is nearly a 70 percent chance that a disease would escape the lab during the 50 years it is supposed to operate. Such an escape could have a devastating impact on the economy, costing $9 billion to $50 billion.
The new analysis, however, concludes that the risks and costs could be significantly higher. For example, the assessment does not take into consideration the risks associated with daily cleaning of large animal rooms, and with being located close to Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine clinics, according to the report.
It also underestimates how hard it would be to contain an infection if it escaped from the lab. About 9.5 percent of all the cattle in the country are with 200 miles of the site.
Another concern is the lack of adequate medical expertise in the area to deal with any infections that escape. The Mercy Regional Health Center is the only medical center nearby, and it does not have the necessary resources to handle an infection escape, the report found.
Late in the day Monday, the Department of Homeland Security released the following statement:
"The United States needs to be on the frontline of livestock animal health research and defend America against foreign animal, emerging, and zoonotic diseases. NBAF will be a modern research facility that will protect the U.S. from threats to our animal agriculture, food supply, and public health. The National Academy of Sciences found the site-specific risk analysis to be an important 'first step in an iterative process aimed at identifying and minimizing risk' and supported the need for the capabilities NBAF provides.
DHS will continue to work with USDA and the CDC to ensure all recommendations from the site-specific risk assessment are properly implemented and all biosafety and biosecurity requirements have been met. No permits will be issued by either USDA or the CDC until all requirements are met."
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