Hearings on the Future of Kansas Biosecurity Lab

A committee of the National Research Council (NRC) convened last week to hear testimony on the necessity of the planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).  A Kansas NPR affiliate (KCUR) reported that the board is investigating several possibilities including  moving forward with the facility as planned, scaling back the current design of NBAF and working with existing capabilities at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, or even shifting the research to several high containment Biosafety Level 4 (BSL 4) labs across the U.S. and abroad.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials cautioned the panel on the inherent difficulties of working with overseas partner labs during time critical events of responding to an outbreak. “It is not good policy to rely on foreign partners,” said James Johnson, DHS Director of the Office of National Laboratories.

DHS made clear to the panel that the capability needs driving the planned NBAF facility still exist, despite the funding challenges faced.  Testimony from DHS Undersecretary Tara O’Toole emphasized that the threat of existing and emerging animal health disease remains real and construction of the proposed facility in Kansas should move forward.

New cost estimates discussed Friday place the project at $1.14 billion. DHS officials said the increased cost was attributed to changes in the design of the lab to better mitigate risk as part of a Site-Specific Risk Assessment process overseen by the Council. (What’s Next for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility? – March 5, 2012). Kansas has pledged $110 million toward the cost of building NBAF, of which $35 million has already been allocated. DHS has previously testified they will need significant support from the federal budget to move forward with the NBAF program.

The site selection in Kansas has faced vocal opposition from critics concerned about the release of a contagious pathogen such as Foot and Mouth Disease in the agricultural and livestock heartland, particularly given the facility’s planned location in an area prone to tornados.

Supporters cite the concentration of top animal science and food safety researchers in the area as making Kansas State University the best location for the lab and that appropriate risk assessments and construction design will mitigate threats.

The NRC committee will continue to receive testimony in the coming weeks and is expected to issue its report by June 30, 2012.

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