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Kansas biosafety lab risk miniaturized

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has revised dramatically downward the  risk of the lethal Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) escaping from a controversial proposed high-level animal biosafety lab in rural Kansas.

The risk that the livestock-devastating disease could escape from the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) during its 50-year lifespan is less than 0.11%, according to this 923-page risk assessment released by DHS today. (Those not inclined to read the full risk assessment can see this two-page fact sheet, along with the department’s accompanying press release.)   When catastrophic events such as earthquakes and tornadoes are excluded, it adds, the risk falls to less than 0.008%.

A risk assessment compiled in 2010 had put the likelihood of such an event at 70%.  The National Academies, in this report appraising that assessment, concluded that it had “several major shortcomings”.  The academies will, similarly, weigh in on the new risk assessment later this spring.

The new risk assessment, which was required by Congress, “reaffirms that we can build a safe and secure facility to meet this important mission,” said Tara O’Toole, the DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology, in the department’s press release.

But Bill Dorsett, a contractor in Manhattan, Kansas, who lives about two miles from the site of the proposed lab and is a member of the citizen’s group No NBAF in Kansas, called the revised risk assessment “absurd”.

“There’s no way that an analysis can get it down that precisely,” Dorsett says. “Because a big portion of the risk has to do with people and people’s behaviour. That starts with congressional funding for the lab — and continued congressional funding for its maintenance.  We’re trying to predict what Congress will do ten years down the line.”

Tom Manney, a retired Kansas State University (KSU) biophysicist with an expertise in microbial genetics who is chair of No NABF in Kansas, adds that even a 0.11% risk  “is still an unacceptably high risk of an event that would be as economically and emotionally devastating as release of FMD”.  The DHS, he notes, acknowledges that such an outbreak would cost billions of dollars.

But Ron Trewyn, the vice-president for research at KSU, counters that the new report “is a much more realistic assessment. The earlier [70%] number was totally unrealistic,” he argues, because the evaluators did not include in their calculations the standard biocontainment infrastructure and procedures that would be built into the facility.

Congress funded the lab at US$50 million in 2012, but that funding was conditioned on the production of the new risk assessment and its subsequent appraisal by the National Academies.

That the proposal is far from a done deal was made clear last month when the Obama administration sent its 2013 budget proposal to Capitol Hill.  Not only did it not request any money for the lab’s construction, it requires the National Academies to examine whether present disease threats justify the facility, the costs of which could reach $1 billion.

This week’s print issue of Nature includes a detailed examination of the controversy around the proposed NBAF, intended for the site pictured above on the campus of KSU in Manhattan.





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