Nobody ever said moving “Plum Island” to Kansas was going to be easy or cheap.
But until that move can occur, Homeland Security won’t have its state-of-the-art facility for combating biological threats to the United States.
Plans for the lab have been in the works since shortly after 9/11. The groundwork has been laid by government documents, including Presidential Directive 9: Defense of United States Agriculture and Food (January 2004); National Security Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (November 2009); and the Congressional Report, “The Clock is Ticking.”
All point to the need for speed in “developing the capability to produce vaccines and therapeutics rapidly and inexpensively.”
Now the project has reached a critical point as a second National Research Council report to Congress says Department of Homeland Security plans for the “National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility” (NBAF) proposed for Manhattan, KS are much improved since 2010, but not yet up to snuff.
It’s an important distinction because the proposed NBAF is a biosafety level 4 (BSL 4) laboratory, defined as a facility that works with infectious agents that are both dangerous and exotic, can be transmitted by aerosol and are life-threatening in that there are no vaccines or therapies to deploy in the event of exposure.
The new Kansas facility is supposed to replace the aged Plum Island Disease Center.
Plum Island, a barrier island of the coast of Long Island, NY, has been run over a 60 span by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and – since 2003 – Homeland Security. After 9/11, Homeland Security took over landlord and security duties for the USDA scientists who still work there. In 2008, Plum Island was on the list of would-be targets for a U.S. trained scientist with links to al Qaeda.
Today Plum Island is more heavily guarded than ever. CBS News in June was denied permission to photograph its docks.
The only access on and off the island is via government ferry supervised by armed guards. Just part of the routine for USDA’s scientists and veterinarians who work there, most for either the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) or the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
“Not once in our nearly 50 years of operation has an animal pathogen escaped from the island,” claims USDA. It has postured Plum Island as “America’s first line of defense against foreign animal diseases.”
That’s the Plum Island that will move to Kansas if NBAF becomes a reality, but the National Research Council has found there are still “deficiencies” and “risks associated with operating the facility” that it said are inadequately characterized.
Its not yet clear, however, whether the new NRC report will hold up the eventual move of Plum Island research facilities to Kansas. Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Governor Sam Brownback, all Kansas Republicans, have gone together to ask Homeland Security to release funds for construction of the central facilities plant.
The NBAF would become the world’s fourth BSL 4 laboratory capable of large animal research for the study of foreign animal diseases. It would include emerging and new infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people as well as old favorites like the contagious foot and mouth disease harbored by cattle, pigs, deer and other cloven-hoofed animals.
In a separate letter, Roberts and Missouri’s two Senators, Claire McCaskill, D-MO, and Roy Blunt, R-MO, urged Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to move forward with the swift construction of NBAF. They said it was not just an agricultural issue, one that has “direct implications” for the country’s security.
USDA continues to favor the Manhattan, KS site for the BSL 4 labs.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the new facility would provide:
– Enhanced research capabilities to diagnose foreign animal, emerging and zoonotic diseases in large livestock.
– Expanded vaccine and countermeasure development capabilities for large livestock
– Replacement and expansion of research capabilities to conduct research, develop vaccines and other countermeasures, and train veterinarians in preparedness and response against these diseases.
Funds for the utilities plant are now available to Homeland Security. The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations has allotted $75 million for NBAF construction. The Senate is expected to take up the funding issue later this summer.
The site picked by Homeland Security after a three year selection process is located close by the Kansas State University Biosecurity Research Institute. The design was changed after a 2010 report by the NRC found there was a 70 percent chance that foot and mouth disease could be released over the 50 year life of the facility.
Until its built, Plum Island will remain open doing business under its mission statement:
“We work to protect farm animals, farmers and ranchers, the nation’s farm economy and export markets… and your food supply.”© Food Safety News