The Associated Press
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Safety questions linger, but officials trying to attract a new national biodefense laboratory see little danger in building it at Kansas State University.
Most research at the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would be in Level 3 labs on viruses such as foot-and-mouth disease, which infects cattle, pigs and sheep. But 20 percent of the space would be Level 4 labs, dealing with microorganisms posing a high risk of life-threatening diseases with no cure.
Kansas is competing with Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas for the $451 million lab that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants build to replace an aging lab on Plum Island, N.Y. A decision is expected later this year and the new lab could be operating by 2013.
A recent federal audit criticized the department for not conducting a study on whether foot-and-mouth research can be done safely on the mainland. A professor has raised the same issue, noting that if the lab comes to Kansas it will be surrounded by agricultural production.
But Kansas State University officials see disaster scenarios as science fiction rather than science fact.
“Can I tell you there is a zero percent chance there would be an accident in a place like this?” said Dr. Jerry Jaax, associate vice president for research compliance and university veterinarian. “No, I don’t think I can tell you this, but certainly I can tell you the track record for these facilities has been excellent.”
So far, opposition to bringing the new lab to Kansas has been muted. Legislators and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius are pursuing the project with the backing of university and community leaders.
“It represents jobs and economic development, and they see the risks as being small compared to potential gains,” said Joe Aistrup, head of the university’s Political Science Department. “Broadly speaking, there’s widespread support in the community. There are a few people with qualms about it.”
The biggest concerns have come from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. It issued a report last month that cited the lack of a safety study by Homeland Security.
“While location, in general, confers no advantage in preventing a release, location can help prevent the spread of pathogens and, thus, a resulting disease outbreak if there is a release,” the report said.
Walter Dodds, a Kansas State University biology professor, said such research has to be done but moving the lab off of an island “takes away a level of protection.”
“Being on an island or out in the desert, there aren’t the animals to carry the disease,” he said. “It may be the facility is safe enough, but there is no scientific information in the public to decide.”
Ron Trewyn, KSU vice president for research and a leader in the effort to attract the lab, said a pending environmental impact statement should answer many of the questions about potential risks.
As for the critical audit, Trewyn said, “With GAO reports, it depends on the questions being asked by Congress.”
Jaax, who spent 26 years in Army, much of it doing research with deadly viruses, said it isn’t likely that a plume of nasty vapor would escape. Scientists would be using only minute portions of a pathogen, he said.
“If this was a facility that was producing liters or gallons of agent, then you might have a situation where you might get enough agent to really cause an aerosol cloud,” Jaax said.
He said there’s never been an occupational death or an escape that has caused a pandemic or a single case of illness, even with four other Level 4 labs in U.S. urban areas.
The congressional audit did note a release of foot-and-mouth virus in 1978 at Plum Island that infected some animals on the island but attributed it mainly to human error.
Jaax said the new lab would have numerous safety features to prevent an accidental release, including multiple doors to enter or leave the lab, numerous high-end purifying filters for air leaving the facility and special biosafety cabinets for working with pathogens.
And even the audit said: “The incidence of the release of any dangerous pathogen from modern containment facilities are quite low.”
The United States has been free of foot-and-mouth since 1929. Humans are rarely affected, but it can spread quickly among livestock. There are at least seven types and 80 subtypes of the virus and a vaccine for one type doesn’t protect animals from another type.
That raises the possibility of terrorists smuggling foot-and-mounth into the United States and releasing it among large herds of livestock in a bid to cripple the nation’s economy.
“One of the reasons they’re investing so heavily in facilities like this one is that they have to find ways to counter this because we’re held hostage with foot-and-mouth,” Jaax said. “If we don’t come up with countermeasure, it’s a matter of time.”
But Jaax thinks its unlikely terrorists would target the new lab in hopes of obtaining pathogens.
“You can find foot-and-mouth in South America, Africa and Asia and you don’t have to look very hard to find them,” he said. “This stuff is out there and would be available to the bad guys.”
As for the research, Trewyn said most of it will be public, with scientists publishing their results. Homeland Security will be the landlord for the new lab but the U.S. Department of Agriculture will do most of the research.
“The purpose here is to develop treatments for foreign animal diseases. It’s to be able to detect them more quickly, more accurately and be able to treat them,” he said.
As for more secretive research, Trewyn said, “That would be some place out in the sticks. The federal government owns a lot of land in the western part of the United States.”
The Associated Press