Council to consider three NBAF alternatives

By Bryan Richardson

A National Research Council committee opened a new study Friday concerning whether the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility should be built in Manhattan. The committee held its first meeting in Washington, D.C., utilizing live audio webcast.

Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, alluded to financial issues rather than safety as a basis for thee re-examination. “The secretary and I were persuaded the country needs this facility,” she said of NBAF. “We also don’t know where and how to get the money to build it.”

The main aspect of the committee’s task is to consider three alternatives: building NBAF as currently designed, building a scaled-down version of NBAF (to be described by NRC/National Academy of Sciences) or maintaining current capabilities at Plum Island Animal Disease Center while leveraging BSL-4 laboratory capacity (for livestock) through foreign laboratories.

What’s not being considered is building NBAF anywhere other than Manhattan. Basically, it’s Manhattan or bust.

The Department of Homeland Security requested the committee’s formation after President Barack Obama asked for a reassessment of the project. Money is being withheld in Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget after only $50 million of the $150 million requested this fiscal year. The government originally estimated NBAF would cost $650 million, but estimates now exceed $1 billion.

Another NRC committee is working on an evaluation of Homeland Security’s updated risk assessment. The two committees have separate members. Both studies’ findings are supposed to be ready for June.

The committee’s work will just be a recommendation.

O’Toole said there is no idea how to utilize the findings yet, but the information will be useful. “We asked this committee be convened, so that the stakes and the pros and cons of any decision were made very clear to the government before we moved,” she said.

To help determine their recommendation, the committee will examine factors such as capacity and capabilities, advantages and liabilities, relative costs and other considerations in relation to the mission needs of DHS and USDA to counter threats from bioterrorism, foreign animal diseases and zoonotic diseases.

The committee’s report will identify pros and cons, discuss potential gaps and provide consensus advice on how the laboratory infrastructure needed to address emerging foreign animal and zoonotic disease threats could be assembled.

O’Toole said there is a financial struggle with trying to get modern infrastructure and continue research and development.

“This tension will continue to exist,” she said. “You can’t do research without modern facilities, but the cost of modern facilities comes out of the same piggybank for which we pay for research.”

O’Toole said DHS doesn’t have the money hundreds of millions needed to start construction on the facility, but there is about $75 million set aside from past Congressional appropriations. “We haven’t spent because we don’t want to start building if we’re not actually going to be able to construct the facility,” she said.

O’Toole said there are issues with Plum Island, including its age – established in 1954 – and “worrisome maintenance needs.”

Plum Island’s biosafety level capacity is actually lower than K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, which is a BSL-3.

“We will never be able to bring Plum Island up to code as a BSL-3 facility,” she said. “We are being grandfathered in to work currently.” O’Toole said the New York congressional delegation and its residents have expressed “total rejection” to the idea of a BSL-4 facility there.

Jamie Johnson, director of DHS’s Office of Science and Technology, said there would be about a 30 to 40 percent increase in construction cost if a BSL-4 facility was to be built on Plum Island. “If we modernize Plum Island, it’s very, very likely we’ll need to build a new laboratory,” he said.

Johnson said there has been consideration of the need of a BSL-4 facility for the past 15 years, long before the arrival of DHS. “The mission need for Plum Island doesn’t meet the gap of what we’re trying to do, particularly with the emerging zoonotic diseases,” he said.

O’Toole said dozens of new infectious diseases have emerged over the past decade with 60 to 70 percent of those zoonosis, meaning they are capable of being transmitted from animals to humans. She said America wouldn’t have a safe place to even diagnose a new disease if there was a zoonosis emergence in America.

“If it were a contiguous pathogen that really affected our herds, our crops, we would be very hard pressed to move against it in a timely way,” she said.

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