Questions raised over proposed agro-defense lab

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As you probably know, the Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with Kansas State University, plans to locate the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. Monday’s release of a site-specific risk assessment report, along with an independent review of the report, raise questions over the facility’s safety. Some, however, take objection to the review’s conclusions.

DHS commissioned the risk assessment, which involved a team of more than 130 subject-matter experts and federal employees, leading to Monday’s release of the 417-page report. At the request of Congress, the National Research Council conducted its own review of the report.

The NRC report notes what it calls "several major shortcomings" in the DHS risk assessment and questions the planned facility’s ability to contain dangerous animal diseases. According to their review, there is nearly a 70 percent chance over the 50-year lifetime of the facility that a release of foot and mouth disease could result in an infection outside the laboratory, impacting the economy by estimates of $9 billion to $50 billion.

Those figures undoubtedly will raise eyebrows in Kansas and elsewhere and help fuel opposition to building the facility there. But not so fast, say officials associated with the project. During a news conference in Manhattan, Ron Trewyn, vice president for research at Kansas State University, Tom Thornton, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Bioscience Authority and James Johnson, director, Office of National Labs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, addressed the purpose of the risk assessment and what they see as flaws in the NRC report.

Each of the officials noted the urgent need for the research facility to protect human and animal health and our food-production system, and noted that NRC’s review also recognizes the need for a biocontainment facility to be built in the United States.

Thornton explained that the purpose of the risk assessment is to serve as a guide for designing the facility and planning its operating procedures. The report identifies potential risks and offers recommendations on how to mitigate those risks. The process of designing the facility is only 25 percent complete, and DHS has expressed its intent to incorporate input from the risk assessment into the design process and the lab’s standard operating procedures.

The risk assessment report includes 17 detailed recommendations for mitigating risks, and the agency has accepted all of them.

Johnson said the NRC report’s conclusion regarding a 70 percent chance of the FMD pathogen escaping the facility is misleading. In arriving at that figure, he says, the report’s authors did not account for mitigations applied to design and operations based on the findings of the risk assessment. Those adjustments, and others identified as scientists develop the facility over the next eight years, will create much lower containment risks. “We will not build this lab if it is not safe,” he said.

Access the complete NRC evaluation of the risk-assessment report.

response from Kansas State University and the Kansas Bioscience Authority also is available online.

Note: Drovers is a sister publication to Dairy Herd Management.


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