A committee of the National Research Council says an updated risk assessment of a proposed high-security biodefense lab in Manhattan, Kan., appears to understate the chances of deadly pathogens being accidentally released.
There’s no way to be sure, though, because there’s widespread disagreement on what the reports mean.
The lab in question is the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, which is slated to be built on the campus of Kansas State University. It would be only the fourth top-security biocontainment lab in the world with facilities for large animals.
The first assessment from the Department of Homeland Security calculated the risk of pathogens escaping from the lab at 70 percent over the 50-year life of the facility. Such a release could devastate the nation’s livestock industry.
The design was upgraded, included better resistance to tornadoes, and a new risk assessment was conducted. The new assessment estimates the chance of an accidental release at only one-tenth of 1 percent. However, the chairman of the scientific review panel, Greg Baecher, says the new risk assessment is better than the first one, but still flawed.
“Questionable and inappropriate assumptions were used in the new updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment that have led to artificially-lower estimates of the probabilities of pathogen release,” Baecher said.
Baecher says the report also understates the amount of pathogen that could be released and the consequences that would result. According to the report, the most likely cause of any release would be an earthquake or tornado. The review committee is skeptical of that finding and says the risk of the facility being compromised by an earthquake or tornado is actually overstated. That leads Kansas State University’s vice president for research, Ron Trewyn, to conclude that the risk is too low to worry about.
“That would mean that number would probably be less than .11 per cent,” Trewyn said. “It’s quibbling over small numbers and there’s nothing that you do that’s without some risk.”
Baecher, though, is worried about the potential for human error. While the risk of damage from a tornado or earthquake is overstated, Baecher says, the risk of human error is seriously understated in the most recent risk assessment.
“Consider what happens if you’re in an earthquake and you’re a lab technician,” Baecher said. “I mean, clearly the rate of human error goes up in that situation and yet those operational features about natural hazards are also not considered in the report.”
So how do the competing findings balance out?
“Based on this current analysis, we don’t know,” Baecher said. “We don’t think the analysis has been done well enough that any of these numbers are trustable as the basis for judging risk.”
So, does that mean another risk analysis needs to be done before going ahead with construction of NBAF?
“That’s not within the purview of the committee to say,” Baecher said. “That’s within Congressional purview. What we are saying is that, as of today – to decision-makers in Congress, or in DHS, or other places—we believe we still do not have an adequate scientific basis for knowing the risks associated with NBAF.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Pat Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran see it differently. They say this latest review by the National Research Council meets all the requirements enacted by Congress and it’s time to move forward with construction. Kansas State’s Trewyn points out that the review not only endorses the need for NBAF, it also validates the design of the facility.
“It says it’s a critical asset in securing the future health, wealth and security of the nation,” Trewyn said. “It’s time to get it moving forward, because there are lots of biological threats out there, many of which will get to the U.S. We aren’t prepared.”
Virtually everyone agrees that the United States needs a facility like NBAF. The $1.1 billion lab would replace an outmoded lab on Plum Island, off the coast of New York.
The safety issues revolve around whether it would be a mistake to put the lab on the mainland, right in the heart of the nation’s livestock herds. An offshore location offers one extra layer of safety if a pathogen somehow escapes the containment facility. However, the New York congressional delegation has made it clear that a level-4 lab on Plum Island is not an option.
Federal officials have clearly stated that if NBAF is to be built at all, it’s going to be built in Manhattan, Kan. That said, another committee of the National Research Council is still preparing a report on whether NBAF should be built as planned, scaled back to save money, or whether the nation should continue to rely on the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
For more NBAF coverage, visit KCUR's Tracking NBAF page.