National Research Council pans government studies of safety of multiple proposed biodefense labs/ Science
Posted Nov 19 2010 11:27pm
Like so much in today's world of politics, there is no logic that can explain it. Biodefense labs (whose value in the light of the risk they pose is questionable) are being built smack in the middle of large cities (Boston), in areas that flood (Galveston), and in the middle of a farming area dense with livestock (Manhattan, Kansas).
Luckily the National Academy of Science's National Research Council has gone on record to point out some of the obvious anomalies. Two recent stories in Science magazine are worth a look.
Federal officials are still stumbling in their efforts to analyze the risks of operating a high-security biology lab in Boston that would study dangerous pathogens such as Ebola virus and anthrax, says the National Research Council (NRC).
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the $128 million lab to Boston University in 2003; the building is complete but not yet operating. But the university's plan to use part of the building to study the deadliest pathogens in biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) facilities has drawn fierce opposition from the local community. An NRC panel stoked those concerns in 2007 when it panned NIH's risk assessment. NIH started over.
But in a report released today, the same NRC panel says it "cannot endorse as scientifically and technically sound the illustrative analyses presented" by contractors conducting the new assessment.
The report says that the contractors ignored NRC's advice to first qualitatively assess the risks of 13 different pathogens, then quantify risks for a subset. Instead, the contractors forged ahead with modeling risks for all 13 pathogens by using expert opinion instead of actual data and information from case studies. The NRC report recommends a "mid-course correction."
The critique comes the same week that a different NRC panel found problems with a risk assessment for a huge federal agricultural biodefense lab planned for Kansas.
An expert panel today harshly criticized a federal study of the risks of building a giant new lab in Kansas to study the world's most dangerous animal pathogens. The report from the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) says a risk assessment by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has "several major shortcomings," including inadequate data for predicting the economic impact if highly contagious foot and mouth disease (FMD) virus were accidentally released and infected U.S. cattle.
DHS announced in 2005 that it planned to replace the old Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island with a facility on the U.S. mainland to study FMD and even more dangerous pathogens, such as Nipah virus. DHS considered six sites for the $450 million lab, and in late 2008 announced that it has chosen Manhattan, Kansas, to host the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). But last year, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) slammed DHS's risk assessment for the Kansas site as inadequate. Congress withheld construction funding until DHS redid the assessment and had it reviewed by the National Academies...
But the panel found many problems with the new DHS assessment, completed in June. Based on data in the DHS report, the NRC panel estimated that there is a 70% chance over 50 years that FMD would escape from the lab and infect livestock, resulting in an economic impact of between $9 billion and $50 billion. But while DHS came to "many legitimate conclusions," the NRC panel found, its analysis "is not entirely adequate or valid..."