The Department of Homeland Security said a 7-in-10 chance that foot-and-mouth disease would escape from a facility in Kansas was an "extremely low" risk. The National Research Council begged to differ.
There are some who don’t think it is the best idea in the world to build a facility that will study live foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) pathogens across the street from the Kansas State University football stadium — and within 200 miles of nearly ten percent of the U.S. cattle herd.
Among those who question the decision to move this research from Plum Island, New York, to the middle of Kansas are the National Research Council (NRC), which issued a critical report in November, and R-CALF, the rambunctious cattle-raisers group based in Montana.
In November, the NRC issued a report saying there was a 70% chance that FMD would be accidentally released from the site during the research facility’s 50-year lifespan. A foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would cost the nation between $9 and $50 billion.
Just before Christmas, R-CALF wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking that she scrap plans to build the new facility in Manhattan, Kansas.
The lab would cost up to $915 million. Then-senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who is now Governor, secured an initial $40 million for the project. The money was contained in an earmark in the end-of-the-year spending bill.
Research on these pathogens had been taking place at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on an island near Long Island, New York. The Plum Island facility had been operated by the Agriculture Department.
But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, work on bioterrorism increased, and the Department of Homeland Security asked Congress to pay for a new facility that would conduct research on biological terrorism. It would be called the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).
Most countries conduct this kind of research on islands to add another barrier between infectious agents and free populations of plants, animals and people. Both Germany and Denmark picked islands for similar kinds of research. Australia located its lab in another country. Canada, however, conducts FMD research on the mainland.
Choosing a site for the bio-defense project was controversial from the start. DHS picked several potential sites, but initially left out Plum Island. Homeland Security officials eventually included Plum Island, the only offshore site on the list.
Homeland Security evaluators ranked sites, but those rankings were ignored as the department narrowed its list.
Homeland Security eventually settled on Manhattan, Kansas, near Kansas State University and in the middle of the country’s agricultural heartland.
The General Accountability Office questioned the safety of the project in a 2009 report, and as a result the Congress did not fund the project. Congress said it would not fund the facility until the DHS conducted a new risk assessment of the Kansas site.
Homeland Security’s study concluded that the Kansas site was safe and had been fairly chosen.
Meanwhile, Congress had asked the National Research Council to carry out its own evaluation of the controversy. That report was issued in November.
The NRC’s report was devastating. It found that the DHS site-specific assessment was “not entirely adequate or valid” and “did not account for the overall risks associated with operating the facility in Manhattan, Kansas, nor did it account for the risks associated with work on the most dangerous pathogens in a large animal facility.”
Homeland Security’s risk assessment had found that there was at least a 70% chance of an outbreak of FMD over the facility’s 50-year lifespan. DHS reasoned that this threat was “extremely low.”
DHS also estimated that the economic impact of an outbreak of FMD in Kansas would be between $9 billion and $50 billion.
The National Research Council concluded that this was a “level of risk that cannot be considered low.” After all, unintended releases of foot-and-mouth disease from secure laboratories have occurred at least 15 times in the last 50 years, the NRC reported.
The NRC noted that the risk of widespread distribution of FMD was greater in Manhattan, Kansas, because the site was within 200 miles of 9.5 percent of the total U.S. cattle population.
Moreover, cattle are brought from around the area to the veterinary facilities at Kansas State. “Once the animals return home with their owners, they could serve as a conduit for disease spread,” the NRC concluded. “This is in stark contrast to the Plum Island research facility, which is located on an otherwise uninhabited island with limited visitor access.”
Finally, the NRC found that Homeland Security’s plans to reduce the spread of FMD if it spreads from the Manhattan, Kansas, facility were overly optimistic.
The National Research Council concluded that the nation needs a new place to study animal diseases and pathogens. The Plum Island facility is old and in need of repair. However, the NRC found that “further risk analysis” was needed on the Manhattan site.
“Ultimately, policy makers will need to decide whether the risks of constructing the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, are acceptable,” the NRC concludes, somewhat ominously.
In the meantime, Sen. Brownback attached an earmark worth $40 million to the spending bill that passed during the last days of the year, money that would begin work on the Manhattan site.
On December 21st, R-CALF’s president, R. M. Thornsberry, wrote DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano asking that she “take the immediate action of voluntarily denouncing” the project in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, South Korea has destroyed almost one million animals after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was detected in late November. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met in an emergency meeting with his cabinet late last week to discuss the outbreak and some 70,000 soldiers have been mobilized to deal with the crisis.