Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Build a new biosafety lab, but possibly build it smaller, says report

Less than one month after a US National Resource Council (NRC) panel criticized the government for underestimating the risks of a proposed new biosecurity lab, a new ten-person committee issued a second report today advising that construction should go ahead, although possibly on a reduced scale from the original design.

The report comes at the request of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which asked the NRC to weigh the pros and cons of three possible options: build the estimated $1.14 billion  National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas according to the original plans; build a scaled-back version of the facility with a distributed network of smaller affiliated laboratories; or continue using the half-century-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York State.

The NRC committee was not tasked with choosing a best option, but it did come out with strong recommendations. For one thing, it basically nixed the possibility of keeping Plum Island open.

In a news conference this afternoon, committee chair Terry McElwain, director of Washington State University’s animal diagnostic lab in Pullman, described the ageing facility as “very outdated, inefficient,” and even with modifications, it “could not meet maximum level containment standards.”

Yet, even with the recommendation to begin construction on the Kansas facility, the report was mixed on what size and scope the lab should take. “The new lab as planned does meet the nation’s animal research needs, but it has a big drawback: the high cost,” McElwain said.

In this time of fiscal austerity, a scaled-back version of the facility could make a lot of sense, the report noted. And it would still be able to handle most research into emerging pathogens and diseases, although a planned vaccination research program would likely have to be dropped and possibly assigned to another high-level containment lab.

Still, stressed McElwain about the possibility of a smaller NBAF, “I want to make it clear this would not compromise the ability of cutting-edge research.”

Report image courtesy of the National Research Council

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