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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1

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In the Defense of Food and Health
Photo by Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service

On an isolated island two miles off the coast of New York lies the research keystone of the nation's defense against biological attacks on the animals, farmers, and ranchers that furnish a large part of our food supply. But this federal research center is aging, prompting the need for a new and more modern laboratory.

A proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) to be constructed in Manhattan, Kansas, will study hazardous animal pathogens, including highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, which can decimate cattle and other cloven-hoofed animals and zoonotic pathogens that are transmissible between animals and people. Before funds are allocated for construction, Congress asked the National Research Council to review a U.S. Department of Homeland Security site-specific risk assessment associated with operating this new lab.

The committee that wrote the report recognized the need for a biocontainment facility like the one proposed but found several major shortcomings with the risk assessment performed by DHS, including that the risks and costs of an accidental pathogen release could be significantly higher than the assessment indicates. Based on data from the DHS assessment, the committee calculated a nearly 70 percent chance over the 50-year lifetime of the facility that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could result in an infection outside the laboratory, impacting the economy between $9 billion and $50 billion.

Overall, the committee said that the assessment had reached many legitimate conclusions but it did not fully account for operating a biocontainment facility of the highest level. Important operation risks and mitigation issues, such as the hazards associated with the daily cleaning of large animal rooms, were not included.

Moreover, the assessment failed to address how pathogens might be accidently released, especially foot-and-mouth disease, and is overly optimistic about its spread throughout the United States after a release. For example, the assessment did not consider the NBAF's close proximity to the Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine clinics and football stadium or that roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory lies within a 200-mile radius of the proposed facility. The committee urged that mitigation strategies for an extensive outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease be put in place before the facility opens.

"Building a biocontainment facility that is capable of working with large animals presents new and unknown risks that could not be accounted for in the assessment," said committee chair Ronald Atlas. "This should be viewed as a starting point. As more information emerges, an updated analysis could be appropriate."
-- Jennifer Walsh

Evaluation of a Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the Department of Homeland Security's Planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Committee on the Evaluation of a Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the Department of Homeland Security's Planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas; Board on Life Sciences and Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Division on Earth and Life Studies (2010, 146 pp.; ISBN 0-309-16281-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $35.50 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Ronald Atlas, professor of biology and public health and co-director of the Center for Health Hazards Preparedness at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences