A new National Research Council report, prepared with input from the National Academies of Scientists, says there are "several significant shortcomings" in the risk assessment done by the Department of Homeland Security for the operations of the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) at Manhattan, Kan.
The report particularly addressed the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease escaping from the laboratory and infecting cattle, pigs or wildlife in the vicinity of the lab, putting the risk of such a release at "nearly 70%" and estimating the cost of such an event at between $9 billion and $50 billion.
But DHS officials, and officials at Kansas State University in Manhattan where the facility will be located, took exception to that, calling it misleading.
"That is an assessment of the cumulative risks with no mitigation measures in place and it is a very misleading number," says James Johnson, director of the Office of National Labs with DHS. "In reality, we are very early in the design process, but we already have identified potential risks and ways to mitigate them. When you apply mitigation strategies to the picture, then the risk drops dramatically. This is a very, very low risk project."
Johnson went on to say that the project will not be built if it can't be built and operated safely, but that DHS is confident it can be operated safety and that additional safeguards will continue to be built into the design and operations protocol between now and eight years from now when the facility becomes operational.
Bill Brown, Kansas Commissioner of Livestock, added that any report that assesses only risk and does not factor in mitigation, results in a skewed perception of the project being assessed.
"If you went from a strictly risk analysis standpoint, then none of the existing laboratories in the United States would be operational," he said. "They are operational because of the mitigation in place, the redundancy of systems, the safeguards and attention to containment detail."
The NRC report, which was requested by Congress as a review of the DHS risk assessment, did not address the issue of whether Kansas or not is the proper site for the project.
Johnson made it clear that the site selection has been made and said that he does not anticipate any changes in the timetable to build the plant. Design work on the project is only about 30 percent done, he said.
Tom Thornton, executive director of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said it is important to realize that a risk assessment is not a report that sits on a shelf somewhere, but is rather a living, integrative document that changes as conditions change.
"It changes as technology changes, better models or better data become available of better procedures are developed," he said. "Obviously, this risk assessment will be something that we keep working on as new risks are identified or new pathogens emerge. We will continue to development and implement new mitigation standards."
Ron Trewyn, vice president for research at K-State, said many of the points in the NRC report did not come as a surprise and that there has already been work done toward resolving issues.
Johnson said, however, that one thing that cannot be addressed is the fact that there is a lack of data and experience in handling large animal work on a scale larger than other high-containment laboratories.
But, he said, data that is not available is not going to become available if you wait.
Johnson emphasized that DHS appreciates the input from the scientists who prepared the report and their concerns and issues will be considered and mitigation for those concerns implemented in the final design and in operating procedures.
The NBAF at Manhattan will be the world's third Biosafety Level 4 pathogen laboratory that can work with large animals. The other two facilities are in Australia and Canada. It will replace the aging facility at Plum Island, located about two miles off Long Island.
Kansas State University already operates a Biosafety Level 3 pathogen laboratory in Pat Roberts Hall on campus.