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Leak from proposed federal labratory could cost billions

Guest Robert Roos

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Guest Robert Roos

A leak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus at any of six proposed sites for a large federal laboratory to study foreign animal diseases could cost billions of dollars, according to a recent report by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).


Such a leak would be extremely unlikely, but, if it occurred, the estimated economic damage could range from $2.8 billion to $4.2 billion, depending on where the proposed lab is located, says the DHS report.


The economic impact would be smallest at the site of the US Department of Agriculture's existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on a small island off Long Island in New York. Estimates are higher for potential sites located closer to livestock industry operations, including sites in Kansas and Texas.


In-depth environmental impact statement


DHS released a lengthy environmental impact statement on the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) on Jun 20. The new lab would replace the Plum Island lab and would host research on the most dangerous foreign animal and zoonotic diseases, those requiring biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 containment.


The report says diseases likely to be studied at the lab include African swine fever, classical swine fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, FMD, Japanese encephalitis, and Rift Valley fever—all requiring BSL-3 containment—and Hendra and Nipah viruses, which require BSL-4.


The Plum Island lab is the only US facility that can handle the FMD virus, but it is too small for current research needs and has an outdated structure that is unsuitable for BSL-4 research, according to DHS. Currently the nation has no lab capable of doing BSL-4 studies on livestock.


"The proposed NBAF would enable us to meet the challenges posed by the intentional or unintentional introduction of a foreign animal or zoonotic disease that could threaten the US livestock industry, food supply, and public health," said Jay Cohen, DHS under secretary for science and technology, in a news release about the report.


Besides Plum Island, proposed sites for the facility are Manhattan, Kan.; San Antonio, Tex.; Flora (Madison County), Miss.; Athens, Ga.; and Butner (Granville County), N.C. Construction could start in early 2010 and would take about 4 years, according to DHS. However, a decision to build has not yet been made.


Risk for foreign bans on US meat

FMD is a highly contagious livestock disease that devastated the British cattle industry in 2001. DHS estimates the economic hit from an FMD virus leak at the proposed sites as follows: Plum Island, $2.8 billion; Georgia, $3.35 billion; Mississippi, $3.4 billion; North Carolina, $3.5 billion; Texas, $4.1 billion; and Kansas, $4.2 billion. For each site except Plum Island, the estimated loss from foreign bans on US meat amounts to $3.1 billion; for Plum Island the corresponding estimate is $2.7 billion.


Estimated losses from disruption of the livestock industry vary by site and are highest for Kansas, at just over $1 billion. "It is the size of the livestock industry in the affected state that serves as the main discriminator among the candidate sites in terms of economic losses," the report states.


The report also looks at the possible consequences of a leak of Rift Valley fever virus and Nipah virus from the various sites.


The document says DHS examined the potential for accidental or intentional release of a pathogen from the lab and the potential that the pathogen would spread from each site. "The evaluation considered the accident scenarios with and without measures to prevent and contain a release," it says. "The results indicate that for all sites the risk was none to low for all accident scenarios except an over-pressure fire, where an explosion would occur due to the buildup of a large amount of gas or flammable chemical in an enclosed area. The risk was moderate for all sites."


For all sites except Plum Island, the overall "risk rank" related to such a fire was classified as moderate "because of the potential easy spread of a disease through livestock or wildlife," the report states. The risk for Plum Island was "low or none due to the low likelihood of any disease getting off of the island."


Final decision months away

A Jun 21 Washington Post report, however, said the selection of Plum Island as the site is considered unlikely because the government "spent considerable time and money scouting new locations and because of financial concerns about operating from a location accessible only by ferry or helicopter."


DHS is taking comments on the report for 60 days and plans to hold a public meeting near each of the proposed sites later this summer, according to the news release. A final environmental impact statement is expected in late fall, and a decision on whether and where to build the NBAF is expected a month or more after the final report is issued.

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