TOPEKA — A new report warns that without strong precautions, a planned biodefense lab in Manhattan could accidentally release pathogens like foot-and-mouth disease — the very scourge it's designed to fight.
There's at least a 70 percent chance that the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility will accidentally release foot-and-mouth and cause an outbreak at some point within a 50-year span, according to findings released Monday by the National Research Council.
Foot-and-mouth is harmless to humans but devastating to cattle and other livestock. Such an outbreak would cause between $9 billion and $50 billion in economic losses, the council's report predicted.
Defenders of the federal project criticized the National Research Council review, saying it failed to consider the many security precautions being developed to limit the risk of pathogen release when the lab opens, perhaps as early as 2017.
Manhattan prevailed over sites in several other states to win the $450 million federal lab, known as NBAF. Researchers at the lab will study some of the world's worst animal germs — some of which are also dangerous to people — to safeguard the nation's food supply against natural and terrorist threats.
Congress last year blocked funds for NBAF's construction, however, until federal authorities and the NRC could respond to safety concerns. A 2008 government study questioned the wisdom of studying animal diseases anywhere on the U.S. mainland; the work now is done in an aging facility on Plum Island off the New York coast.
Monday's report — requested by Congress — isn't likely to put those questions to rest, and it could delay the project further if Congress decides to take another look.
"It is up to policymakers to decide whether the risks are acceptable," said Professor Ronald Atlas, a professor of biology and public health at the University of Louisville who led the National Research Council review.
The biodefense lab is still in the design stage. Its supporters in Manhattan, Topeka and Washington were quick to defend the project's safety precautions.
They noted that the NRC failed to consider most of the safeguards already planned for the lab. But they agreed that the findings could still help to make the lab even safer.
"The more information that is provided — especially at this early stage — the better," said Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Details of the review
Congress asked the National Research Council to review an earlier risk assessment conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The NRC is an independent, nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Academies of Science. It often conducts research on behalf of the government.
The researchers found "several major shortcomings" in the Homeland Security review:
* Failure to account for the risk associated with animal pen cleaning. The report noted that humans exposed to contaminated animal waste or bedding could themselves spread disease.
* Little mention of the nearby Kansas State University campus and specifically the football stadium, whose spectators could spread any escaped pathogen.
* No recommendation for backup air filters in laboratories.
* A failure to present NBAF's strategies for detecting a pathogen release and stopping one once it has occurred.
The NRC also highlighted Manhattan's location in the heart of U.S. cattle country.
"Roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory lies within a 200-mile radius of the facility," the report noted. "Given that the disease (foot-and-mouth) is highly contagious and that the chance of its escape is not zero, rigorous and robust regional and national mitigation strategies are needed... before the facility opens."
Atlas, the chairman of the NRC's panel, acknowledged that his team didn't take into account some safety precautions already planned at NBAF. Information about the safeguards wasn't provided in the original risk assessment and couldn't be evaluated, he said.
But supporters of the project said that's like performing a home inspection on a dwelling that hasn't been built yet.
The NRC review "did not account for any of the recommended mitigation measures that DHS (Homeland Security) has committed to incorporating into the final design," said Homeland Security spokesman Chris Ortman. "DHS will not build or operate the NBAF unless it can be done in a safe manner."
Tom Thornton, president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said the criteria used by the NRC would flunk just about every top lab in the nation.
"It's a distortion," he said of the findings. NBAF, he added, will feature "every safeguard, every safety protocol, every mitigation strategy available."
The state's six members of Congress put out a joint statement saying: "We are confident this facility will be the safest research laboratory in the world and its mission is critical in order to protect our nation's food supply."
Manhattan Mayor Bruce Snead welcomed the NRC report, which he said would lead to more robust safeguards.
"This is the due diligence that's been part of the project all along," Snead said. "Good, tough questions have to be raised and answers developed."