Kansas lawmakers urge construction of bio-defense facility

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 15, 2012- A new National Research Council report requested by Congress about the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, concludes that an updated risk assessment of the facility makes significant improvements, but does not “adequately include overall risks.”

The report finds the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's updated risk assessment for NBAF a "substantial improvement" over the original 2010 version, “but it has a number of deficiencies and inadequately characterizes the risks associated with operating the facility.”

Senators Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback today issued a joint statement after the release of the evaluation, which also recognized the importance of supporting the study of foreign animal diseases.

“The Department of Homeland Security has developed a sound design for the NBAF in Manhattan that goes above and beyond established regulatory standards and ensures heightened safety measures,” they said. “While we do not agree on some aspects of the evaluation, the National Academy of Sciences fittingly recognizes that NBAF would be a critical asset in securing the future health, wealth and security of the nation.

“We call on the Department of Homeland Security to release the funds for the Central Utilities Plant and to begin construction immediately,” they added. 

The NBAF would be the world's fourth Biosafety Level 4 laboratory capable of large animal research, replacing the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center located off Long Island.  It would study dangerous foreign animal diseases -- including highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which affects cattle, pigs, deer, and other cloven-hoofed animals -- as well as emerging and new infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people. 

Senators Roberts, Moran, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sent a letter today to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano urging her to move forward with important steps to ensure the swift construction of NBAF.

“We urge you to continue to work with Congress, especially the Kansas and Missouri delegations, to ensure NBAF becomes a reality,” the letter states. “This is not just an agriculture issue. Rather, the Department of Homeland Security was specifically chosen to handle this mission and its laboratories because of the direct implications such research and development hold for our country's security.”

In 2010 the Research Council reviewed the original site-specific risk assessment by DHS and found that it was inadequate due to flawed methods and assumptions.  In response, Congress mandated that DHS revise its assessment to address shortcomings and directed the Research Council to evaluate the updated assessment, which is the focus of the most recent report.  The committee that reviewed the updated risk assessment found that many of the shortcomings identified in the 2010 report have been addressed and that the new version complies better with standard practices than the previous version. 

The committee noted that some of the risk reduction of NBAF in the updated report may be explained by improvements to the latest design plans for the facility, but despite improvements, the updated assessment “underestimates the risk of an accidental pathogen release and inadequately characterizes the uncertainties in those risks.”

"Because a pathogen release from the NBAF could have devastating agricultural, economic, and public health consequences, a risk assessment that reaches inappropriate conclusions could have substantial repercussions," said Gregory Baecher, chair of the committee and Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

However, the latest design plans for the NBAF appear to be sound, the committee said.  The National Academy of Sciences committee members also state that “the United States needs the capacity to support critical research and diagnostic programs for the study of foreign animal diseases and zoonotic diseases that are directly linked to securing the health and wealth of the nation.”

The completion of the study is the final legislative requirement prior to signing the land transfer and releasing previously appropriated funds for the construction of the Central Utilities Plant. In June, the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations appropriated $75 million for NBAF construction. The Senate is expected to debate the legislation this summer.

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