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Most Hazardous Animal Disease Lab Can’t Be Built on Plum Island

Homeland Security Didn't Have Option Studied Because "Local Acceptance" Doesn't Exist

America’s riskiest animal disease research can be housed in less space than the $1.14 billion facility planned for construction in Manhattan, KS, says a blue chip panel of scientists from the National Research Council.

And, their report also reveals, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security believes that “given the need for local acceptance,” a top level biosecurity level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory cannot be included in any renovation of the 55-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC).

The 1.3 square mile Plum Island is located in Gardiners Bay off the eastern end of New York’s Long Island. USDA is currently in its sixth decade of animal disease research recognized around the world for its excellence on Plum Island, but its 77,000 square feet of BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories are both aging and inadequate.

Homeland Security’s plan, endorsed by USDA, is to replace the PIADC with the new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) on 45 acres donated by Kansas State University in Manhattan with about 105,000 square feet of with BSL-2, 3, and 4 protections.

Kansas wants the well-paying jobs the new federal labs will bring to the Sunflower state.  K-State already has a 113,000 square foot BSL-3 facility for agriculture, which helped many warm to the idea of having more labs.

Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran want Homeland Security to move ahead with the land transfer and start utility construction with funds already appropriated by Congress.

Still, the NRC report says $824 million remains to be funded, and that price tag is why the panel was asked to look for cheaper alternatives.

It really only looked at two: a scaled-down NBAF in Manhattan and renovation of PIADC, using foreign lab capabilities to make up for the fact that Homeland Security does not even want to try building BSL-4 labs on Plum Island.

Building the NBAF as designed is an option with many advantages, according to the panel, including in-country infrastructure to handle foreign animal and zoonotic disease threats. However, it comes with “substantial costs” for construction, operation and maintenance and program development.

As for the cheaper alternatives, the panel principally looked at an option that calls for reducing the size of the NBAF through more  “collaborations” with other federal and university labs. Left as Plum Island is now, the NBAF would be the sole site in the U.S. approved to work with foot and mouth disease virus.

By reducing the labs planned for Manhattan by 15-25 percent, the federal government might cut as much as $111 million from the cost of completing the NBAF, according to the report.

The savings, however, might come with a cost. Specifically the report says the U.S. would face “a theoretical possibility that system capacity could be overloaded or insufficient in the event of simultaneous disease outbreaks.”  It suggested the U.S. negotiate a memorandum of understanding with domestic and foreign labs for emergencies.

Plum Island currently costs the U.S. $50 million in lab operation and $6 million for security, not counting program costs. Many improvements are needed – such as a liquid waste decontamination facility, harbor upgrades, technology and building renovations, as well as hardening of security, detection and access control.  Another $210 million could keep Plum Island open for another 25 years.

The panel, however, concludes that it is “imperative” to build BLS-4 large animal space in the U.S., and if that’s off the table at Plum Island,  it is not worth the savings that would come with scrapping NBAF in Kansas

Plum Island’s big deficiency now is its lack of a biocontainment facility for animal and zoonotic disease.

In its report, the panel does not actually recommend cuts to the proposed NBAF.  It just points out there are some possible duplications among various federal and university labs.

Previous NRC reports about the NBAF were essentially risk assessments. The first in 2010 reviewed the designs and found there was 70 percent change that foot and mouth disease could be released from the facility at some point in the 50 year life of the facility. Last month, the second report said design improvements meant less risk.

Plum Island did experience an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1978, something that has not been experienced on the U.S. mainland since 1929. That was before cattle were moved indoors to contained cells.

Foot and mouth is an infectious and sometimes fatal disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals. It is only one of 116 animal diseases that threaten farm animals, according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).  About 25 diseases occur in multiple animal species.

While USDA is focused on protecting the $165 billion U.S. livestock herd, Homeland Security is concerned about livestock and poultry being used in biological terrorism.

The panel notes such “high-priority pathogens” as Nipah virus, Hendra virus, and Rift Valley fever virus as zoonotic agents. PIADC declines to name the pathogens currently on the island that eventually will have to be moved to Kansas.

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