Gov't defends Kansas site for bio-defense research lab


Research into foot-and-mouth disease can be conducted safely in Manhattan, Kan.


-- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) remains convinced that research into foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) can be conducted safely in Manhattan, Kan., and does not intend to re-open the site-selection process for a new, high-security lab facility despite a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report critical of the selection process.

Those are the key conclusions in DHS’s formal response to the GAO study, which essentially claimed that DHS didn’t adequately assess the biosecurity and economic risks of moving the disease-research facility from its decades-old location on Plum Island, N.Y., off Long Island, onto a mainland site in close proximity to livestock operations.

The DHS announced last December that it had chosen the site at Kansas State University over four others in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi to build the new National Agro and Bio-Defense Facility (NABF) that is expected to cost between $560 million and $650 million.

Although Kansas officials expect construction to start in July 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives has withheld any construction funds, calling for a new independent study.

The DHS says that GAO’s study doesn’t respond to what Congress asked it to do in relation to the 2009 appropriations bill. Instead of evaluating whether FMD research “can be done safely on the mainland,” the GAO instead chose to evaluate whether the research “can be done as safely on the mainland as on Plum Island.”

In its 30-page July response, DHS says its own environmental-impact study did note that the water barrier around Plum Island would provide an extra layer of protection in the “extremely unlikely” event of an accidental release of any disease pathogen, but that Plum Island does not best meet the purpose and need to site, construct and operate the NBAF according to criteria developed by DHS and USDA experts.

“While the study of contagious diseases anywhere is not without risk, modern biocontainment technology has made the likelihood of an accidental release of a pathogen extremely low, and … has eliminated the need for locating animal-disease research on an island as was done decades ago,” the DHS says.

The GAO should not dismiss the fact that FMD research is being performed safely on the mainland in other countries, demonstrating that appropriate safety protocols minimize risks, the DHS says, adding that there are five BSL-4 (highest security level) facilities currently operating in the United States in populated areas (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Georgia State University in Atlanta; U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md.; University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; and Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas).

Among the benefits of constructing the NABF on the mainland are rapid diagnosis and response to possible foreign-animal disease outbreaks and access to more research programs and expertise, allowing for greater research advancements, DHS says.

“As part of the design process, DHS will conduct a site-specific biosecurity risk mitigation assessment for the Kansas site to determine the required design and engineering controls needed to adequately protect NBAF during operations,” DHS says.

“Ultimately, it is not the location that determines the risk, but the design and operation of the new facility,” it concludes.

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