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Smaller Biodefense Facility in Kansas May be Sufficient, Experts Conclude

Plans to build a massive state-of-the-art animal disease research facility in Kansas could be reduced without jeopardizing the nation's extended biodefense goals, according to a National Research Council report released on Friday (see GSN, June 18).

A panel of experts in the lengthy NRC assessment examined three alternatives: proceeding with plans for the 520,000-square-foot National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan as they stand; building a smaller laboratory; or continuing use of an older facility on Plum Island in New York, which the Kansas center is intended to replace, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported.

The envisioned $1.14 billion Kansas laboratory is intended to include Biosafety Level 4 space, which would permit research with some of the most contagious animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease.

The Obama administration requested no funding for the project in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal. A separate NRC panel also recently said the Homeland Security Department has yet to prepare a fully sufficient threat analysis for the site.

The new assessment requested by Homeland Security found that current plans for the Kansas laboratory contained the best possible infrastructure ingredients in one place and would also meet the present and long-term requirements of the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments. Negatives are the plan's high cost and that it fails to maximize use out of the country's existing biodefense research facilities.

The second alternative --  a smaller Kansas laboratory that would rely on partnerships with other research centers -- would leverage existing assets, reduce expenses, bolster the country's network of biodefense facilities, and support disease defense needs, the report concludes. The expert panel said the budget ramifications of the scaled-back option were not readily available.

The last option -- maintaining the Plum Island facility -- was found to be problematic as the site only contains Biosafety Level 3 research spaces, meaning the United States would have to continue to lean on international animal laboratories with higher-containment BSL-4 capacities.

"Given the uncertainty over priorities of a foreign laboratory and logistical difficulties in an emergency, it would not be desirable for the United States to rely on international laboratories to meet these needs in the long-term," the assessment reads.

Experts recommended the continued operation of the Plum Island center until a new laboratory with authorization to conduct research on foot-and-mouth-disease is operational (Lisa Schnirring, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy report, July 13).


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