US high security bio lab faces uncertain future

Where in the US should the world's biggest animal disease lab go?

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Plans to build one of the world's most secure laboratories in the heart of rural America have run into difficulties.

The National Bio and Agro defence facility (NBAF) would be the first US lab able to research diseases like foot and mouth in large animals.

But reviews have raised worries about virus escapes in the middle of cattle country.

And rising costs have cast doubts over the project's future.

For over 50 years the United States has carried out research on dangerous animal diseases at Plum Island, just off the coast of New York. However after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security raised concerns about the suitability of the location and its vulnerability to terrorist attack.

After carrying out an exhaustive search for an alternative, the Department selected Manhattan, Kansas as its preferred location.

Big science

Start Quote

They don't know any more about technology than a tomcat knows about baking gingerbread...”

End Quote Stephen Anderson, Rancher

The new national facility would be able to carry out research on animal diseases that had the potential to not only cripple US agriculture but that could be turned into biological weapons as well.

But although the decision was made to go ahead with the project in 2008, little has happened in the intervening years.

Located close to the centre of the "little apple", as residents term the city, the huge site for the new lab currently stands empty. Around the size of seven football pitches, the only animals in sight at present are the rabbits scampering among the weeds. A few forlorn cattle look on curiously from a nearby ranch.

NBAF vacant site The NBAF site shows little sign of activity.

"Phenomenal..." is how Dr Stephen Higgs from Kansas State University describes the site, despite the lack of progress. "There's no going back as far as I'm concerned, once we get the political will then we will just move forward."

Dr Higgs is the director of the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI), a smaller secure laboratory run by Kansas State that sits right next door to the proposed NBAF site. The fact that the BRI was already situated in Manhattan was a key factor that influenced the selection.

Threats from Animals

  • As well as foot-and-mouth, the new facility will research nipah virus, hendra virus and African swine fever among others
  • It will seek to develop vaccines and other countermeasures
  • Around 300 scientists would work in the facility

The existing facility is termed a biosafety level three environment. The new lab would be a level four, but crucially it would be the first to have the room to carry out experiments with larger animals such as pigs and cattle.

At present the US doesn't have the capability to carry out this type of vital research says Scott Rusk, director of operations at the BRI

"It's a world of emerging and re-emerging diseases - we're vulnerable if we don't have our own capabilities to address the risks."

He quotes the example of an outbreak of Reston ebola virus in pigs in the Philippines where the US was asked to help out with the diagnosis. Ultimately the diagnosis had to be done using lab facilities in Australia.

"We're just going to be in the queue if something similar happens. We would have to go off shore to diagnose it."

Kansas cattle One of more than six million cattle in Kansas

Because of the location of the project a number of reviews have been carried out and these have raised serious question marks about the suitability of the site. A report carried out by the National Research Council in 2010 determined that over the 50-year life of the new laboratory there was a 70% chance of the accidental release of a pathogen.

Subsequent reviews cut that estimate to just 0.11%. However the most recent report, while supporting the idea of NBAF, concluded that the risk assessment was "technically inadequate in critical respects".

Supporters of the project believe that the NBAF lab will be safe.

"There's no such thing as zero risk, we get up every morning and there's risk to rolling out of bed" says Scott Rusk, who has also acted as an adviser on the NBAF project.

"I think that the technology that is applied to biocontainment makes these facilities safe to put anywhere. We do this type of work all over the country with pathogens that are deadly to people. The risk to the agricultural community is minimal. We don't need to have a moat around a facility anymore."

This view is not shared by everyone.

Rancher feeding cattle Some ranchers are worried about the threat of foot-and-mouth

In the flint hills of Kansas, just 30 miles from the proposed facility, rancher Stephen Anderson shows me his herd of beef cattle. There hasn't been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the US since 1929 when Stephen was a year old. But he has little faith that technology alone will prevent a release of the virus if the lab is built.

"These guys who get up there and say technology is so good today it's always going to be safe, they don't know any more about technology than a tomcat knows about baking gingerbread," he tells me.

Tornado alley

Stephen's views are echoed by retired Kansas State Professor, Tom Manney and a former chair of the institutional biosafety committee.

NBAF sign on site A sign indicates the future plans for the site

"I think Kansas is the wrong place for it. It's best to be offshore. There have been incidents at Plum Island, they've had releases of foot-and-mouth disease but they were confined to the island and therefore they didn't trigger the embargoes that accompany such events," he explains.

Among the concerns about Kansas is the fact that Manhattan is prone to tornadoes. One struck the University in 2008 - one of 187 twisters to hit the state that year. To reassure people that the NBAF would be secure, proponents have reworked their plan to build in greater levels of containment.

All this added safety has pushed costs to over a billion dollars. And while local politicians of all hues have been vocal in their support for the project, it has been more muted at national level.

Many leading Republicans have ideological concerns about yet more government spending. Governing democrats are torn between competing infrastructure projects, including new ships for the Coastguard.

President Obama did not include money for the NBAF project in his proposed budget for next year. Even if federal cash is forthcoming to get the project started, the facility is unlikely to open before 2020.

There has been conjecture that a smaller facility could be built in Manhattan with some aspects of the development farmed out to other laboratories.

But according to Scott Rusk, smaller would not be quicker or cheaper.

"To simply downsize the design is not really feasible. It would add more time and possibly more cost," he says.

The NBAF he says, is an all or nothing project.

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