By Greg Cima
Posted Aug. 1, 2012
Researchers at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York use an infrared thermography camera to identify cattle infected with the foot-and-mouth disease virus. The Department of Homeland Security plans to replace the facility with one in Kansas. (Kathleen Apicelli/USDA ARS)
A recent report contends the Department of Homeland Security inadequately characterized the risks connected with operating a proposed national defense facility for animal disease research.
The report by the National Research Council for the National Academies does not indicate whether the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would be safe, but rather, analyzes the methods used and conclusions reached by Homeland Security when it published its risk assessment in February.
The NRC report was published in June, and it commends Homeland Security and its contractors for their efforts to assess the risks associated with the facility, which is planned for Manhattan, Kan. But the committee concluded that the department likely underestimated many risks, such as those associated with operations, and may have overestimated other risks, such as the potential for release of foot-and-mouth disease virus following an earthquake or tornado.
In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that limitations in Homeland Security risk analyses available at the time prevented a conclusion that work on dangerous animal diseases could be conducted safely at the Kansas site. An appropriations bill passed that fall prohibited the department from spending money on construction of the facility until it conducted a risk assessment and the NRC reviewed the assessment.
The Homeland Security report and NRC review were published in 2010. The research council concluded that the risk assessment had many legitimate conclusions, yet had flawed methods and assumptions. The NRC report noted that the assessment figures indicated the likelihood of an infection resulting from release of FMD virus from the facility approached 70 percent over 50 years.
Legislation passed in 2011 instructed Homeland Security to develop a revised assessment.
Homeland Security’s 2012 risk assessment stated that the facility’s design had “no evident fundamental flaws or design features that would prohibit the implementation of the best and safest practices used in animal and zoonotic pathogen research facilities.” It stated that, over the facility’s 50-year estimated lifespan, there was less than a 0.11 percent chance of accidental release of viable FMD virus.
The NRC report indicated the updated risk assessment fixed many shortcomings of the 2010 document but used “questionable and inappropriate assumptions” that led to artificially low estimates of the probabilities and amounts of pathogen released.
“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,” the report states.
Nicole Stickel, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, provided a statement that the report confirms the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility is critical for the “health, wealth, and security of the nation” and that the facility has sound design plans that conform to, and improve on, accepted, stringent containment standards. The statement asserts that the NRC review raised questions about the assumptions used with relation to uncertainties of risk but didn’t assess the facility’s operational safety.
“The findings of this assessment will be incorporated into future plans and processes of operating the NBAF as part of the iterative risk process,” the department said.
One of the findings in the NRC report, however, indicates Homeland Security’s risk assessment does not adequately address plans for personnel preparedness and training in security, laboratory procedures, and emergency response. Excluding that information led the committee to believe the department had not completed those preparations.
The Kansas facility would replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the coast of Long Island, New York. Unlike the Plum Island facility, the NBAF would have biosafety level 4 laboratories, which have the highest level of biological security and are needed to safely study pathogens such as the Nipah and Hendra viruses, according to Homeland Security.