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Scaled-back option raised for US agricultural biodefence lab

Plan showing location of NBAF site near Kansas State University in Manhattan

The United States needs the capability to conduct research and surveillance for biological threats to its domestic livestock industry and study animal-borne diseases that could infect humans — but that capability need not be housed entirely in one location.

That’s the conclusion of a report from the National Research Council released on 13 July that takes a hard look at the rationale behind the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a proposed high-security laboratory at the centre of an ongoing US debate over its location, its associated risk and its estimated US$1.14-billion price tag.

The committee of experts who wrote the report considered the pros and cons of three options: (1) proceeding with the NBAF as it is now planned, as a one-stop biosafety-level-4 agricultural (ABSL-4) lab (which would work at the highest level of bio-containment) located in Manhattan, Kansas; (2) building a scaled-down version of the lab, leaving some of its functions to be handled elsewhere; or (3) relying on international labs and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a 58-year-old BSL-3 agricultural lab off the coast of New York state.

Plum Island alone won’t cut it. “It is very outdated. It is inefficient. It doesn’t meet current biosecurity level standards, even with continued investment it wouldn’t be able to meet standards,” said Terry McElwain, a pathologist at Washington State University in Pullman, who chaired the committee behind the report. Dependence on international labs has a downside as well, he adds. “If we have an outbreak that requires BSL-4 containment, other countries have different priorities,” depending on which local diseases pose greater immediate threats, said McElwain.

According to the report, only the first two options meet US needs. But although a central laboratory such as the NBAF would be “a key part of an integrated national system”, it would ideally be only one component of a “distributed network of national and international partnerships” that would together defend against the threat of emerging or introduced animal diseases.

The catch, the report’s authors say, is that a more distributed approach could actually be more costly than the NBAF as it is now planned. McElwain also stressed the need for an in-depth look at risks. (The selection of Kansas as the site of the NBAF had previously drawn criticism from local cattlemen, among others, who fear the possibility of pathogen release in the heart of US cattle country.) Determining the best course, the report says, will require more than the “limited and insufficient information” provided by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which, along with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is responsible for NBAF.

DHS Spokeswoman Nicole Stickel told Nature in a statement that the DHS appreciates the committee’s work and “will review the report and continue to work with stakeholders and Congress on a path forward”.

“Regardless of the option that is selected in the end,” said McElwain, the committee recommends that the DHS and the USDA develop an integrated national strategy and network to address these disease threats.

Congress allocated $50 million to the NBAF this year, but whether or not the facility will receive that funding hinges on both today’s report on the necessity of such a lab and a previous National Academies report evaluating the DHS risk assessment of the lab. It now falls to the DHS to pick the best option and to Congress to determine what kind of funding, if any, the NBAF will receive next year.

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