Panel wraps up inquiry into NBAF

By Bryan Richardson

The National Academy of Sciences committee on Friday wrapped up its teleconferences, which could play a key role in the future of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).

The NAS committee has been commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security to recommend to build the facility as designed, create a smaller-scale facility or maintain the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which NBAF is supposed to replace.

If built, NBAF would be a biosafety-level 4 facility in Manhattan. The lab would study animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

Kathryn Zoon, Division of Intramural Research (DIR) director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), spoke to the NAS committee Friday via teleconference. The three labs are under the DIR are located in Bethesda, Md., Frederick, Md., and Hamilton, Mont.

The DIR conducts research related to immunology, allergy and infectious diseases. The purpose is to make discoveries that promote the development of new vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to improve human health.

Zoon said the facilities have various capabilities for handling animals such as non-human primates, guinea pigs, hamsters and mice. One facility can handle livestock, though they can’t be highly pathogenic, she said.

“We have the ability to deal with a large variety of species,” she said.

Despite the work with some animals, Zoon said research related to the U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn’t be done at the institute.

“We don’t have any extra capacity,” she said. “Our labs are all full and being used.”

Zoon said her scientists are studying Ebola and Marburg diseases as well as two of NBAF’s probable targets in the Nipah and Hendra viruses.

The committee has been inquiring all week about the capabilities of labs in terms of size, biosafety levels, ability to handle animals and working with other groups.

“We’re just trying to explore what capabilities and capacities are currently available,” said committee chair Terry McElwain, executive director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

Officials from the DHS’ National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases spoke Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

This series of teleconferences continues an eventful 2012 concerning the future of NBAF in Manhattan.

The NBAF project is being reassessed at President Barack Obama’s request. It is controversial for some because of the potential study of FMD on the mainland, especially in an area where roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory is located within a 200-mile radius. The area includes most of Kansas, large parts of Nebraska and Missouri, western Iowa and northern Oklahoma.

Those opposed to the facility include the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association and No NBAF in Kansas, a local advocacy group. Local and state officials have been pushing for NBAF, which they view as a financial boon for Manhattan and the state.

However, cost, rather than safety issues, appears to be the driver of the reassessment. The facility, originally estimated to cost $650 million, now has an estimate of $1.14 billion.

Currently, federal funding is frozen for the project, putting future construction in question as well as interrupting the facility’s construction timeline. No money is appropriated in Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget. Congress allocated only $50 million of the $150 million requested this fiscal year.

Local officials pointed to money proposed by Obama to bring research to Manhattan as a good sign for NBAF eventually coming to the city. Obama’s FY13 budget proposal includes $10 million to transfer research programs focused on African Swine Fever and Classical Swine Fever from Plum Island to the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State.

NBAF has already cost the state millions as it prepares for the facility. Back in February, when future funding first became an issue, various state parties had already spent $22.7 million — $2.3 million by the city, $5 million by the state, $12 million by Kansas State and $3.4 million by the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, told the NAS committee in April that DHS had about $75 million set aside from past Congress appropriations. The state issued $45 million in bonds to help finance construction of a central utilities plant at NBAF and clear away Kansas State’s grain mill.

Another NBAF study, which involves a National Research Council committee reviewing DHS’ updated NBAF risk assessment, is going on in conjunction with the NAS committee’s work. The NRC committee met in January at Kansas State to ask questions of K-State faculty as well as receive public comment.

The updated risk assessment released in March dropped the risk of a FMD outbreak caused by a virus release at the facility from 70 percent over the NBAF’s expected 50-year operating lifetime to 0.11 percent. The previous risk calculation came from an NRC committee studying a 2010 DHS site-specific risk assessment of the NBAF.

The drop is attributed in large part to the design documents being 65 percent complete rather than 15 percent complete such as in 2010, allowing for design changes to strength the facility.

At that time, Ron Trewyn, K-State vice president for research, said the significant risk drop should reassure most people, but Tom Manney, leader of No NBAF in Kansas, said any risk involving an FMD outbreak is unacceptable.

Neither of the studies is related to each other nor contains the same members. Also, the studies won’t address whether Manhattan is a good place to put the facility.

The NAS committee has one more session scheduled on May 22-23 at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, Calif. Both committees are expected to have a report ready by the end of June.

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