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Panel Rejects Option for Keeping Biodefense Research on Plum Island

A highly-anticipated report was issued Friday by the National Research Council, advising the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on options for moving forward on a $1.14 billion National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility (NBAF) research lab planned in Manhattan, Kansas.

Earlier this year, DHS asked the National Research Council (NRC) to review the nation’s requirements for animal disease research and options for providing the necessary facilities to meet those needs, including keeping the current research at the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

The request to NRC came at a time when the Kansas project was under fire for being too costly in the current budget environment and for having risk assessments which inadequately characterized the potential for deadly animal diseases escaping the lab.

The committee found that the needs driving the NBAF project hadn’t changed much since first proposed in 2006, and that a new facility of some sort was “imperative” to the nation’s biosecurity needs. The panel wrote favorably of two options for moving forward with the facility.

The first option would be to proceed in Kansas as planned, but to look to other funding sources to help with spiraling cost estimates. The report cited the example of the Australian government using industry support to accomplish a similar project.

The second option would cut costs by scaling back the size of the project and distribute some research areas to existing laboratories across the country. The Kansas campus would construct a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory capable of handling such highly contagious diseases as foot and mouth virus (FMD); and maintain core functions in the role of a “central lab”.

A third option, which would leave current research at Plum Island and rely on foreign labs to conduct research and deter threats, was rejected by the committee. The location does not have the necessary space to construct a BSL-4 lab, deemed necessary to meeting DHS’s biosecurity mission.

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