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Agriculture Today

Report uncovers shortcomings in bio, agro defense security

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January 12, 2011 | 3,191 views | Post a comment

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) says a newly released National Research Council report requested by Congress uncovered “several major shortcomings” in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security risk assessment associated with locating the proposed National Bio and Agro Defense Facility in Kansas. According to a U.S. Cattlemen’s Association Nov. 18 press release, Congress requested that the Department of Homeland Security produce a site-specific biosafety and biosecurity risk assessment of the proposed National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, and subsequently asked the National Research Council to review the validity of the Homeland Security study while withholding funds for construction of the facility until the studies were completed.

“USCA advocated to have this independent scientific review conducted,” said Chuck Kiker, chairman of the USCA’s Animal Health Committee. “The National Research Council report says the risks and costs of an accidental pathogen release from the facility could be significantly higher than indicated in the DHS [Homeland Security] assessment. The committee’s findings validate the concerns USCA has expressed from the beginning.”

The research committee noted that the Homeland Security risk assessment is “incomplete,” should be viewed as a “starting point,” and found that building a facility that is capable of large animal work on a scale greater than other high-containment laboratories presents new and unknown risks that cannot be adequately measured because of a lack of available data and experience. The United States has not experienced an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929. Foot-and-mouth disease research has not been permitted on the U.S. mainland since 1937.

The National Bio and Agro Defense Facility would be the world’s third Biosafety Level 4 Pathogen Laboratory that would work with large animals and study dangerous and highly contagious animal diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease. It would replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center located about 2 miles off Long Island, N.Y., where a disease outbreak could be contained in the event of a pathogen release. The Homeland Security study reviewed by the National Research Council shows that there is nearly a 70-percent chance over the 50-year life expectancy of the facility that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could result in an infection outside the laboratory, impacting the economy by estimates that range from $9 billion to $50 billion.

The National Research Council report found the Homeland Security assessment estimates for the potential spread of foot-and-mouth throughout the United States if a leak occurred “overly optimistic” in projecting how the disease could be controlled and eradicated and that if foot-and-mouth disease escapes from the bio and agro defense facility it is likely to cause a widespread and economically devastating outbreak. “Given that the disease is highly contagious and that the chance of its escape from the facility is not zero, rigorous and robust regional and national mitigation strategies that address an extensive outbreak of FMD [foot-and-mouth disease] are needed before the facility opens,” said the committee.

Further, the committee identified a lack of an early-release detection and response system, clinical isolation facilities and world-class infectious disease clinicians experienced in diagnosing and treating laboratory staff or communities exposed to dangerous pathogens that affect people, and pointed out that the sole medical center close to the Bio and Agro Defense site does not have the resources needed to deal with such a disaster. “If a pathogen escapes or a laboratory worker acquires an infection, the deficiency of the location would become immediately apparent, which will not only damage the credibility of the federal agencies involved, but could also potentially cost human lives,” the committee said.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association “is grateful that Congress responded to our request for this independent review of the original DHS [Department of Homeland Security] risk assessment,” Kiker said. “Roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory lies within a 200-mile radius of the proposed site and the researchers estimate there’s a 70 percent chance of an outbreak outside the facility. The risks are enormous and the consequences of an outbreak would be devastating. While the report makes no judgment on whether the Kansas location is an appropriate site for the facility, the committee’s findings which clearly outline weaknesses in locating a Biosafety Level 4 Pathogen Laboratory in the heartland of the U.S. [United States], are a clear signal about the outright dangers associated with this decision. Findings in the new report need to be analyzed and taken into consideration as this project moves forward. USCA [the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association] feels the risks associated with building the laboratory on the U.S. mainland are too great and the entire project should be reevaluated.”

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