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New Report Finds NBAF Biolab Risk Assessment Inadequate

A highly anticipated report from National Research Council (NRC) was released yesterday, assessing the most recent Department of Homeland Security risk assessment for the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) site in Manhattan, Kansas.

The report, requested by Congress, finds “substantial improvement” over DHS’s original 2010 risk assessment, but states DHS has failed to adequately characterize certain risks associated with operating the facility.  The NRC committee responsible for the review notes that the risk assessment contains “questionable and inappropriate assumptions that led to artificially lower estimates of the probability of an accidental pathogen release from the facility.”

“A risk assessment of this nature carries significant complexities, yet the practice of completing such assessments is mature enough that the committee’s expectations are attainable,” said Gregory Baecher, chair of the committee and Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Because a pathogen release from the NBAF could have devastating agricultural, economic, and public health consequences, a risk assessment that reaches inappropriate conclusions could have substantial repercussions.”

The accidental release of foot and mouth disease virus (FMDv) is of greatest concern for the facility, planned in the livestock and agricultural heartland. The original 2010 risk assessment cited fomites and lack of respiratory protection as the most likely pathways of accidental FMDv release; the updated assessment concludes that the most likely release mechanisms are those associated with natural hazards, specifically earthquakes and tornadoes.

The committee found that the assessment underestimates the risks of pathogen release and infection and inadequately characterizes the uncertainties in those risks. The committee “finds that the extremely low probabilities of release are based on overly optimistic and unsupported estimates of human error rates, underestimates of infectious material available for release, and inappropriate treatment of dependencies, uncertainties, and sensitivities in calculating release probabilities.”

NRC further stated concern that “the vanishingly small estimates of risk found throughout the uSSRA (risk assessment) are inconsistent with most modern, complex industrial systems. In many instances, the committee could not verify uSSRA results, because methods and data were unevenly applied.”

A separate NRC committee is charged with ‘An Analysis of the Requirements and Alternatives for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory Capabilities’. This report, which could contain recommendations for updating the existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center or spreading the research mission across multiple enhanced existing sites, is expected by the end of the year.

A copy of the full report is available for download at the National Academies Press.

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