Disease research lab moves; risk of outbreak low

Mar 9, 2012

Recent changes to the design of the National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility (NBAF) currently under construction on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, KS, reduce the risk of an accidental pathogen release to near zero, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessment released March 2. The news comes amid concerns for the facility’s future as a result of President Obama’s decision not to include the expected $150 million for annual construction costs in his 2013 budget recommendation.

Intended for the study of diseases that pose a significant risk to the livestock industry, including such high risk pathogens as foot and mouth disease (FMD) and swine fever, NBAF was originally proposed in 2006 to replace the existing animal disease research facility located on Plum Island, off the coast of New York. While opponents to the new facility argue against the risk of locating dangerous pathogens in the nation’s heartland, NBAF supporters cite the need for a new facility, citing the aging condition and insufficiencies of the Plum Island laboratory.

Under congressional order, DHS in 2010 conducted a Site Specific Risk Analysis (SSRA) of the NBAF design plans to assess the potential for release of pathogens. The 2010 SSRA identified a 70 percent chance of disease release over the facility’s 50 year lifespan, spurring debate over the safety of placing such a facility in a state with a large livestock population. Opponents also pointed out that Kansas is prone to tornados, and that the Manhattan area lies on a fault line, increasing the chances of releases resulting from natural disasters. However, design changes implemented to address the risks identified in the 2010 SSRA include modifications to mitigate the risk of disease release due to tornados and earthquakes, as well as those associated with releases resulting from human error. The updated SS- RA released last week claims just a 0.11 percent risk of release over 50 years.

Opponents argue that the effects of an FMD release, no matter how small the risk, would have a devastating effect on the beef industry. “This is not a matter of if an outbreak happens, it’s a matter of when it happens,” says Kansas Cattlemen’s Association (KCA) CEO Brandy Carter. “We don’t have any answers from anyone regarding what the government will do for our ranchers if a release does occur.” Despite KCA’s outspoken opposition to locating NBAF in Manhattan, Carter indicates that many Kansas ranchers support the idea that a new facility is needed. “The facility, one way or another, needs to be done,” says Carter. “We need to have this type of research in our industry; we are just hesitant about the potential for outbreak, and what will be done if something happens.” She adds, “We would have preferred it remain on Plum Island.”

Carter and KCA are not the first group to point out the advantages to having such a facility located offshore. Until 2008, federal law did not permit the study of FMD on the U.S. mainland, and many still feel that being surrounded by water affords the best protection from accidental release. Supporters, however, argue that new technologies in the field of biocontainment allow for a higher degree of safety than the current conditions on Plum Island. Ron De- Haven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), points out that Plum Island’s offshore location is not a guarantee of safety. “Even though it’s on an island, you’ve got birds, you’ve got deer swimming back and forth, and you’ve got people being ferried on and off every day,” he says. “There are still means of moving a virus to the mainland.” Prior to his appointment with AVMA, DeHaven served as administrator for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and served on the threemember committee that oversaw operations on Plum Island. According to De- Haven, the Plum Island facility will never meet the containment standards of a modern facility. “We’re dealing with a 50- to 60-year-old facility,” he says. “You can retrofit some safety equipment in there, but it’s never going to be as good as building a new facility that’s got the latest technology in terms of biocontainment. If we were able to pick up the Plum Island facility, and drop it in Kansas, or anywhere else, it would not be a safe facility.”

In contrast, he says, NBAF is designed to be a Biosafety Level 4 (BL4) facility, one of fewer than 15 rated at that safety level nationwide. De- Haven acknowledges that risk is always present, and that the risk percentage given by DHS is an educated guess. However, he also points out that other BL4 facilities in the mainland U.S. operate in heavily populated areas. The Center for Disease Control studies highly dangerous human diseases in its Atlanta-based laboratory, and other such facilities operate in urban areas with success. Additionally, he says, Canada’s primary animal disease laboratory, which also studies FMD, is located in Winnipeg, just a few miles north of the Canadian border.

Although more than $40 million has been spent retrofitting Plum Island in recent years, DeHaven asserts that those were stopgap measures, intended only to extend the life of the facility an additional10 years, a deadline that is now looming. “It’s time to make the decision,” he says. “I’m not advocating for Kansas, or any other location, but I will say that we need a new facility. If we build it on Plum Island, it’s going to be two to three times the construction cost, and twice the operational cost, of having it on the mainland; and there’s no reason why it can’t be done on the mainland provided we use current construction and biosafety measures.”

With a projected $650 million price tag for completion, cost may be a significant factor in the future of NBAF. In his 2013 budget recommendation, released in February, Obama removed all funding for construction of the facility and directed DHS to reassess the project’s viability. Although the budget proposal was released prior to the DHS risk assessment, the future of the lab remains uncertain given current economic conditions. According to DeHaven, that expense must be weighed carefully against the cost of a potential outbreak of diseases, such as FMD, to the beef industry, which have been projected in excess of $5 billion. “I would urge Congress, as they consider this, to realize that, while [$650 million] is a significant amount of money, we would suffer that kind of loss economically in the first 24 hours of an FMD outbreak. While he admits that the presence of NBAF will not directly prevent the introduction of FMD on U.S. soil, DeHaven points out that the research performed at the facility may provide new insights into how to contain and manage an outbreak. “If we can learn to contain and eliminate [FMD] in a matter of hours, that could be the difference between one year of export restrictions, and 10 years of restrictions,” he says. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent