Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Top DHS Official Defends Kansas Biodefense Lab
A top U.S. Homeland Security official this month defended plans to build a massive state-of-the-art biodefense complex in Kansas even as she recognized the enormous expense of the project posed serious problems for the federal government at a time of wide-ranging cutbacks, Harvest Public Media reported on Tuesday (see GSN, April 13).
The envisioned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility near the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan is to supplant an aging animal disease research site on Plum Island, N.Y. The planned Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facility would support scientific research, the development of medical countermeasures and other efforts against "foreign animal and emerging diseases" that could spread naturally or through acts of terrorism, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Costs for the new biodefense facility have ballooned from an initial estimate of $415 million to a projected $1.14 billion today.
Homeland Security Undersecretary for Science and Technology Tara O'Toole at a recent Washington hearing said the danger of current and possible future animal pathogens is a serious one and that building of the Kansas laboratory should begin.
"You can’t do research without modern facilities, but the money for modern facilities comes out of the same piggy bank for research. I think this is one of those wicked problems for which there is no complete or satisfying answer," O'Toole said.
The Obama administration is not seeking any funds for the laboratory in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal and has directed the Homeland Security Department to re-examine its plans for the site,
Kansas, though, has already poured millions of dollars into the laboratory project. Governor Sam Brownback said the state could anticipate a half-decade struggle to see the 520,000-square-foot institution constructed and opened.
Working against the project is public fear that is more focused on the state of the economy.
"Nearly 40 percent of Americans told us that the U.S. has just been lucky to have avoided a large-scale bioterror attack," University of California (Los Angeles) political science professor Lynn Vavreck said. "Another 40 percent said they think it’s because the government is doing a good job. Either way, that’s 80 percent of the people who might think a new facility is not needed."
In addition to the cost concerns, there are also worries about the likelihood of a highly infectious disease agent stored at the future laboratory accidentally being released into the environment and causing havoc among the surrounding animal and human populations.
Homeland Security officials maintain they have dealt with these worries in their modified threat analysis for the facility. "We have a lot of really smart folks who put together our recent updated risk assessment, and that document will speak for itself when it's made available to the public," DHS Manhattan site manager Tim Barr said.
A National Research Council panel is presently examining the updated assessment and is anticipated to release a report of its conclusions no later than the end of June.
Should it find them necessary, the NRC committee could recommend changes to the NBAF site's design with an eye toward improving its safety and security. The panel is examining a range of alternatives that include leaving the design plan as is; reducing its scope; or canceling the project altogether in favor of continuing research at the Plum Island facility and in BSL-4 laboratories in Australia and Canada.
"It is not good policy to rely on foreign partners," argued James Johnson, who heads Homeland Security's National Laboratories Office.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with oversight over Homeland Security, said via an aide government funds for the Kansas project would stay frozen until the NRC committee issues its findings (Laura Ziegler, Harvest Public Media/Kansas City Star, April 24).
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