NRC: Proposed or scaled-back new agro facility could meet BSL-4 needs

Jul 13, 2013 (CIDRAP News) – A National Research Council (NRC) review on the nation's options for a high-containment lab for studying the world's most contagious animal diseases found that a currently proposed facility set for construction in Manhattan, Kan., or a scaled-back version of it, could meet long-term needs.

In light of the nation's difficult economic climate and the $1.14 billion estimated price tag for building the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense facility in Kansas, the US Department of Homeland Security(DHS) asked the NRC to weight three options: building the lab as planned, constructing a scaled-back version linked to a lab network, and maintaining the current Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located off of Long Island, N.Y.

The proposed Kansas facility would replace the aging Plum Island lab and include a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) capability that allows work on the most dangerous pathogens. The lab in Kansas would be the world's fourth BSL-4 facility capable of large-animal research.

Construction of the Kansas lab was set to begin in 2011, but plans have been dogged by funding delays caused by problems with facility risk assessments. Also, the government planned on paying for the new facility by selling Plum Island, but the real estate market crash lowered the market value, impairing the feasibility of the financing plan.

The latest blow was a new report released in June from a different NRC group that said the updated risk assessment, though an improvement over the DHS's original version, still has a number of deficiencies and inadequately addresses some risks.

In today's 166-page report, the NRC said it was only asked to weigh the three option and not to compare the risks of the locations or determine whether research can be safely done at the locations.

The group concluded that the first option includes all the ideal infrastructure components at a single location and would meet the current and future needs of the DHS and the US Department of Agriculture. Potential drawbacks were the substantial cost and the fact that the plan doesn't leverage capacity at the nation's other containment laboratories.

The second option—a scaled-back central lab along with a lab partner network—could help protect the nation from foreign animal diseases, potentially save costs, increase efficiency, and strengthen a national biocontainment lab system, experts found. However, they said the cost implications are not known.

They identified substantial problems with the third option. Though they said keeping Plum Island open would avoid the cost of building a new facility, it doesn't meet current standards for high biocontainment, which means it would have to rely on foreign labs.

"Given the uncertainty over priorities of a foreign laboratory and logistical difficulties in an emergency, it would not be desirable for the United States to rely on international laboratories to meet these needs in the long term," the NRC group wrote.

Until the United States has a new facility that can conduct crucial work on foot-and-mouth disease, however, Plum Island should remain in operation, the report said.

Regardless of what the DHS decides for a new facility, NRC said, DHS and the USDA should develop an integrated national lab system for addressing foreign animal and zoonotic disease threats, balancing capital costs with the need to support research priorities.

See also:

Jul 13 NRC press release

NRC report

Jun 15 CIDRAP News Scan "Updated risk assessment of Kansas BSL-4 lab gets more low grades"

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