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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2



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A Look at the Nation's Animal Disease Research Needs

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Reports Examine Issues Surrounding Proposed Biosecurity Lab in Kansas

I n the heart of the country, concerns have amassed over a laboratory that would help protect public health and the U.S. livestock, dairy, and poultry industries.The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to house the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) on the picturesque campus of Kansas State University, Manhattan, to study foreign diseases dangerous to animals, including the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, and zoonotic diseases that are transmittable between animals and humans. It would serve as the only Biosafety Level 4 pathogen laboratory for large animals in the U.S. and replace the more than 50-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, which is currently the lone U.S. facility authorized to conduct foot-and-mouth disease research.

Although many agree that such a state-of-the-art laboratory is needed in the U.S., questions surround its $1.14 billion construction price tag, its location in the midst of cattle country, and the most recent risk assessment prepared by DHS for the facility. Two separate National Research Council committees examined some of these issues.

The committee that reviewed an updated risk assessment by DHS found that it is a substantial improvement over the agency's original 2010 assessment, but it has a number of deficiencies and inadequately characterizes the risks associated with operating the facility. For instance, information in the 2010 risk assessment implies that for the two most likely release scenarios there is nearly a 70 percent chance a release of foot-and-mouth disease could result in an infection outside of the laboratory over its projected 50-year lifetime. In contrast, the updated assessment concludes that for 142 possible events that could release a pathogen, the cumulative probability of a release leading to an outside infection is 0.11 percent, or a 1 in 46,000 chance per year. The committee believed this was based on questionable and inappropriate assumptions that led to artificially lower estimates of the probabilities and amounts of pathogens released.

Many of the shortcomings from the previous assessment had been addressed in the latest version, but some of the risk analysis methods were misinterpreted and misapplied when executed. Overall, it underestimates the risk of an accidental pathogen release, inadequately characterizes the uncertainties in those risks, and does not include overall risks associated with the most dangerous pathogens, according to the committee.

A separate committee examined three options to meet the nation's animal disease research needs: construct NBAF as designed, build a scaled-back version, or maintain current operations on Plum Island while leveraging Biosafety Level 4 capacity for large animals through foreign laboratories. For the first option, the committee concluded that NBAF as currently designed has all the components of an ideal laboratory infrastructure in a single location and could meet future needs, but it has drawbacks including substantial costs and an inability to take advantage of the capabilities of other high-level biocontainment laboratories in the U.S.

A partnership between a scaled-down central national laboratory and a distributed laboratory network could help protect the U.S. from foreign animal and zoonotic diseases, save costs, reduce redundancies, increase 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 unknown without further information and study.

Maintaining the Plum Island facility and leveraging foreign laboratories for large-animal Biosafety Level 4 needs would avoid the costs of constructing a new replacement facility, the committee said. Nevertheless, Plum Island does not meet current standards for high-level biocontainment, lacks large-animal Biosafety Level 4 capacity, and would have substantial costs associated with maintenance and operation over the long term. The committee emphasized that until NBAF is built as designed or a scaled-back version opens, Plum Island should remain in operation to address ongoing needs. -- Jennifer Walsh & Lorin Hancock


Evaluation of the Updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Committee on the Evaluation of the Updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the 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 (2012, 111 pp.; ISBN 0-309-25782-4).

The study was chaired by Gregory B. Baecher, Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs for Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options. . Committee on an Analysis of the Requirements and Alternatives for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory Capabilities; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources and Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Studies (2012, 166 pp.; ISBN 0-309-26129-5).

The study was chaired by Terry F. McElwain, professor and executive director of the animal disease diagnostic laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, Pullman.

Both reports were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and are available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242, and free to download on the Internet.


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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences