Reporters this week got an inside look into the deliberations the National Research Council (NRC) is having while studying plans for the controversial bio-defense facility proposed for the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kan.
The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) is currently under review by oversight agencies. A special NRC committee held three teleconferences with agencies already doing research in areas similar to NBAF’s focus – some of the world’s deadliest animal diseases.
The chairman of the NRC committee is Terry McElwain, director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and associate director of the School for Global Animal Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. The committee’s task, McElwain said, is to assess the threats of foreign and zoonotic animal diseases to the U.S. and define what is needed in a new diagnostic and research bio containment lab.
Committee members posed questions to directors of other labs currently working in biodefense. Many of the committee members’ questions revealed deficits in existing labs.
For example, Lt. Col. Neal Woollen, who is with the Army’s primary biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md., was asked what kind of animals they have the capacity to study.
“Our animal handling capabilities here are pretty much the traditional lab animal species that range from small rodents up through non-human primates, “ Woollen said.
The NBAF, however, would be able to do research on larger animals at the highest bio security level, known as BSL4. That would allow the NBAF to study the Foot and Mouth virus, currently researched only at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
Other questions that the committee posed, though, pointed to potential redundancies in NBAF’s proposed mission.
Dr. Kathryn Zoon, director of the Division of Intramural Research at the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said her scientists are studying Ebola and Marburg diseases. They also study the Nipah and Hendra viruses – two targets of the NBAF.
“We’re doing vaccine development,“ Zoon told the committee, and “we look at pathogenesis.”
That’s part of NBAF’s mission as well. Critics of the proposed NBAF have wondered if a new, billion dollar federal lab is required to do similar research on such pathogens with a relatively remote potential for outbreak in the United States.
McElwain cautioned against drawing conclusions about the committee’s report based on the questions asked on the calls. He said the intent of the teleconferences was to gather preliminary information.
There is a separate NRC committee currently evaluating an updated Department of Homeland Security risk assessment for the NBAF site. There is no overlap between the two committees.