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Army institute doesn’t do ag research, official says

By Bryan Richardson

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) provides research for the military not agriculture, officials on Thursday told a group studying the need for a new animal disease research center.

The National Academy of Sciences committee charged with determining whether to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) here held the second of three teleconferences. The final one was scheduled for Friday with the director of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

Lt. Col. Neal Woollen, USAMRIID director, said the mission of USAMRIID is to protect military service members from biological threats by developing medical solutions such as vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. “None of our research is targeted toward solution in the agricultural community,” he said.

NBAF, a biosafety-level 4 facility to be built in Manhattan, would serve as the nation’s facility to study animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). It would replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, starting in 2018.

Woollen said testing occurs when an agent is within their diagnostic testing capabilities, tied to a national security interest and tasked from superiors. “That’s the important caveat of that,” he said. “Somebody couldn’t just call us and say test this.”

Woollen said the goal is to prevent overlap in the work of USAMRIID and the Department of Homeland Security. “We have to be careful about USAMRIID getting into Homeland Security’s lane because those lanes are pretty precise,” he said.

However, Woollen indicated his facility would be happy to work more closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in some areas. He mentioned field work testing involving military personnel and various species of animals.

“We did not take advantage of opportunities at that time to work with USDA,” he said. “I always felt like we missed a unique opportunity to partner.”

A new facility for USAMRIID is being built. Initial occupancy will take place in 2014 for administration and BSL-2 lab space. The BSL-3 and BSL-4 spaces won’t open until 2017.

Dr. Leonard Smith, senior research scientist, told the committee that options are still being explored about what to do with the old building. “I think it will be reused as opposed to earlier discussions on tearing it down and building a parking lot,” he said.

Woollen said he still considers it a viable building, but added that studies would be needed to determine how long it could keep up.

The discussions about a new facility don’t necessarily apply to current considerations. There isn’t a push to build NBAF anywhere other than Manhattan.

The committee’s three options are to recommend building NBAF as designed, build a smaller-scale facility or forgo building NBAF to continue work at Plum Island.

The NAS committee is conducting the study, for which a report is expected by June 30. President Barack Obama called for a reassessment of the NBAF project.

Cost appears to be the motivation of this study. Current estimations have the facility costing $1.14 billion, up from the original estimate of $650 million. Money is being withheld in Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget after Congress allocated only $50 million of the $150 million requested this fiscal year.

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