The Department of Homeland Security is requesting creation of an additional National Academy of Sciences committee to prepare an assessment on the validity of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility by July.
Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, made the request during a Friday meeting of the National Research Council committee charged with reviewing the updated NBAF risk assessment that has been done by DHS.
The NRC committee is expected to provide its review of the Department of Homeland Security assessment in June.
O’Toole talked about some of the financial issues facing the project, which is now estimated to cost $1.2 billion. President Barack Obama has requested that DHS reassess the project.
O’Toole said the additional NAS committee would contain different members from the current committee. She said the NBAF mission needs assessment would consider three questions:
* Does the country, in the current economic climate and budget control measures, need a biosafety level-4 facility as designed?
* Could the country use a smaller facility instead and would it be cheaper?
* Could the country manage with the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which wouldn’t be pushed to a BSL-4 level?
O’Toole said DHS didn’t request NBAF money for fiscal year 2013 because the department had to make the choice between allocating the money toward research and development or the facility.
“You cannot do modern sciences without modern laboratories and equipment,” she said. “On the other hand, if you got a great laboratory and no money for R and D, that’s no good either.”
An appropriations hearing focusing budget issues in the government including DHS is scheduled for next week. O’Toole called trying to secure additional funding for the NBAF under current conditions a perfect storm. “It’s coming at a time when the DHS budget is going down really for the first time since the agency was created,” she said.
O’Toole said none of the discussions involve placing the facility elsewhere. The assessments currently being done by the NRC committee and the future committee won’t give an opinion about whether a facility should be built in Manhattan.
The current committee represents the NRC’s second time reviewing a DHS assessment. The first time occurred in 2010, when the committee concluded from the assessment that there was a 70 percent risk of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak from a facility release over the NBAF’s expected 50-year operating. DHS’s recent assessment dropped the risk to 0.11 percent or 0.008 percent.
The committee asked about the rationale behind the large risk decline that occurred between the two numbers.
“It’s very difficult to follow where that came from,” said James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. “It’s such an enormous deduction.”
Rocco Casagrande, principal investor for the assessment’s subcontractor, Gryphon Scientific, LLC, said the first risk assessment assumed an infection for comparative risk numbers. The new assessment, he said, needed an absolute number on the safety of the NBAF design.
“This time, we actually have an ability to calculate it, so I wouldn’t attempt to compare the two numbers because they are not comparable,” Casagrande said. A difference in approach included looking at the data on the behavior of workers in similar facilities such as the frequently and length with the contact of animals.
Julie Brewer, DHS construction branch chief, said the new assessment also focuses more on the unique risks of a BSL-4 facility. “When we began this BSL-4 assessment, we took to heart the previous committee’s comments that we didn’t address the unique risks of a BSL-4 large animal because one has never been operated in the U.S.,” she said.
Committee member Mark Thurmond, co-director of the Center for Animal Disease Modeling and Surveillance and the FMD Laboratory at University of California-Davis, wondered about the justification of setting the potential for human error at the NBAF 25 times lower than other facilities, especially considering K-State would have people working in the facility.
“How was it that they’d get those people to behave with a much lower rate of error when they really haven’t had much experience at all working in these facilities,” he said.
Beth Lautner, National Veterinary Services Laboratories, said the same rules would apply for everybody to get them ready. “There will be no lessening of the requirements that they would need to have with regard to the training that they would need to complete,” she said.