The National Research Council found several reasons the U.S. Department of Homeland Security underestimated the threat of a deadly disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease, escaping from the National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility.
Those concerns include:
• Homeland Security failed to consider possible exposure to large crowds at the nearby Kansas State football stadium, sick and susceptible animals being treated at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and staff who move between NBAF and K-State’s other research facilities.
• The assessment did not include the daily maintenance and cleaning of the large animal pens inside NBAF. Animals infected by diseases at the high-security labs could release pathogens through the air or manure. This daily occurrence is much higher than Homeland Security’s estimate that NBAF would have 2.6 laboratory spills containing a virus each year.
• The design plans for NBAF did not contain redundant HEPA filters, which would purify the air coming out of the facility.
• Homeland Security was “overly optimistic” in how a disease would be controlled and eradicated. With roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. cattle industry within a 200-mile radius of Manhattan, if foot-and-mouth disease were released from the NBAF facility, it would cause “a widespread and economically devastating outbreak,” the report found.
• The National Research Council questions Homeland Security’s assumption that if an outbreak were to occur among livestock, they would be able to cull 120 to 720 herds per day. The committee doesn’t believe the herds could be detected and culled at that rate.
• Homeland Security doesn’t have a system in place that could detect and respond quickly to a release of a dangerous disease. Manhattan also doesn’t have a facility that would isolate those contaminated with the disease or an expert clinician with experience in diagnosing and treating people exposed to these highly contagious diseases.
Topeka An escape of a dangerous disease and an ensuing outbreak is “more likely than not” over the 50-year-lifetime of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, according to a report issued by the National Research Council.
On Monday the National Research Council released its evaluation of how well the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assessed the risk of locating the federal research lab in Manhattan.
The committee called the DHS’s 417-page assessment incomplete, but also noted it was “a solid starting point.”
“(The DHS report) had many legitimate conclusions, but it was not entirely accurate or valid. It did not account for the overall risks associated for operating NBAF or for conducting foot-and-mouth disease viral research in Manhattan, Kansas,” said Ronald Atlas, the co-director of the University of Louisville Center for Health Preparedness who chaired the committee that wrote the report for the National Research Council.
Atlas went on to note that the assessment did not account for how the high-level biosecurity labs would operate, how dangerous pathogens might be released and which animals would be exposed to the disease.
Leaders in Kansas question the method the National Research Council used in its review, saying “it exaggerates risk to an extreme, nonsensical level that would call into question the entire American biocontainment research enterprise”.
So far, designs plans for the 500,000 square-foot NBAF are a third of the way completed. The facility, which will study the world’s most dangerous diseases, won’t be operational until 2018.
“I think a lot of things can be done between now an then to address whatever issues are out there, and this is very early in the process,” said Ron Trewyn, vice president of research for Kansas State University.
Tom Thornton, CEO and president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said the DHS’s risk assessment was a “living document” that would be updated as new data became available.
Millions in federal funding hinge on the National Research Council’s report. In agreeing to provide $32 million to plan for NBAF, Congress required the DHS to produce a risk assessment on NBAF in Manhattan. Congress also asked the National Research Council to review DHS’s report.
The committee, which agreed that a facility like NBAF was needed, was not tasked with determining whether NBAF should be built in Manhattan.
“It is up to policy makers to decide whether the risks are acceptable relating to construction and operating the NBAF in Manhattan, Kansas,” Atlas said.
Among the National Research Council’s top concerns was the threat that the deadly pathogens being studied inside the lab would escape and create an outbreak among livestock and humans. Based off of numbers provided in DHS’s report, the National Research Council noted it would be more than likely that a release would occur and cause an outbreak.
In particular, the National Research Council noted that the risk and cost of accidentally releasing foot-and-mouth disease from the facility was “significantly higher” than what the DHS assessment considered.
Using numbers from DHS, the National Resource Council calculated that there is a 70 percent chance over NBAF’s 50-year lifetime that the study of foot-and-mouth disease would lead to an infection outside the lab, which could result in a loss of $9 billion to $50 billion.
Jamie Johnson, director of the Office of National Laboratories for DHS, said the 70 percent number was misleading because it didn’t account for the mitigating measures that the DHS would take.
“Once you apply mitigation, it becomes a very low risk,” he said.
The Kansas congressional delegation also stated its concern that the review did not consider mitigation and safety plans the DHS said it would put in place.
“These efforts should not be discounted,” the six-member delegation said in a joint statement. “We are confident this facility will be the safest research laboratory in the world and its mission is critical in order to protect our nation’s food supply.”
As more data and plans emerge, Atlas said that updated analysis could be needed to evaluate NBAF’s risks.
As for the money tied to the report, Thornton said that DHS’s submittal of the risk assessment starts off a 30-day clock after which $5 million will be released from the 2010 budget. Another $40 million is anticipated to come from Congress in 2011. And in 2012, Congress will consider substantially more funding for the actual construction of NBAF.