New biolab report questions size and costs

07/13/2012 12:00 AM

07/14/2012 6:47 AM

Downsizing the $1.14 billion federal animal disease lab under way in Manhattan, Kan., could save money and still protect the United States from foreign animal diseases and terrorist attacks on the food supply, according to a National Research Council study released today.

The National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) is planned to be built on the Kansas State University campus.

The new study, done at the request of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, found that a downsized biolab — dubbed “NBAF lite” by study group members — could provide adequate protection if some research was farmed out to a nationwide network of existing labs.

However, the study also found that it was “imperative” that the United States build a large animal bio-lab somewhere to replace the aging lab on Plum Island, located off the coast of Long Island, N.Y, noting that the Plum Island facility should remain open until that occurs.

The nearly $300 million spent or appropriated so far on the new biolab has gone mainly for studies and design work.

But funding for the project in recent months ran into congressional and White House resistance to come up with the remaining $824 million needed to complete it.

That prompted Homeland Security to ask the National Research Council to consider three options: going ahead with the current lab as planned; building an “NBAF lite” instead, or continue operating the current facility on Plum Island.

Either a full-blown NBAF or an “NBAF lite” facility, with some work farmed out to existing labs, would adequately protect the nation’s interests, the committee found. But the third option — scrapping NBAF and keeping Plum Island open and parceling research out to large animal containment labs located in other countries — was not ideal because of the costs and the “uncertainty over priorities of a foreign laboratory.”

Members of the independent study group, which consisted of scientists and academics, also noted that the lab’s estimated $1.14 billion cost appeared to be unusually high: much higher than similar labs built in recent years.

K-State officials, agribusiness interests and a nonpartisan coalition of Midwest politicians have been promoting the project for years, dismissing concerns from some scientists about the possibility of an accidental release of foot and mouth disease from the lab in the midst of Kansas cattle country.

Supporters maintain that additional protections can be built into the existing design.

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