Analysis: New report on bio-war lab danger

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  June 20, 2008 at 7:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- Although the risks of an outbreak from a proposed new U.S. secure bio-defense and agricultural disease research lab are very low, the consequences would be worse at one of the mainland sites officials want than on the island where the work is currently done, says a draft report from the Homeland Security Department.

The department wants to build the new lab, dubbed the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, at one of five potential mainland sites, but is also evaluating the existing site of the lab it would replace, the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, in New York state's Long Island Sound.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement, published Friday, is a 1,005-page federally required assessment of a range of effects the planning, construction and operation of the lab would have at each of the proposed sites.

It says the health and safety impact -- including the possibility of an accidental or deliberate release of pathogens from the lab -- was "negligible" at all six possible sites, because of its assessment that the risk of such a release "was none to low for all accident scenarios except an over-pressure fire," which can cause an explosion if flammable gases build up in an enclosed space.

The risk for this kind of accident was "moderate" for all six sites.

The department also assessed the possibility of a terrorist attack releasing pathogens from the lab -- which will work on the most infectious animal diseases, like Foot and Mouth; and on those most deadly to humans, like the Hendra and Nipah viruses.

The overall risk assessment for a release at the five mainland sites was "moderate" because of "the potential easy spread of a disease through livestock or wildlife" nearby, the statement said. The Plum Island site overall risk rank was "low or none" because of "the low likelihood of any disease getting off of the island," the statement concluded.

Moreover, the consequences of a Foot and Mouth outbreak would be less severe at the island site, for the same reason.

The existing center, an 840-acre lab complex on an isolated islet off the tip of Long Island, was opened in 1954. Officials say its facilities are now outdated, and cannot accommodate the security measures required for the work on the diseases most dangerous to humans -- called Bio-Security Level Four. The current lab is certified only to Level Three, and there is no facility in the country where dangerous zoonotic diseases -- ones that can spread from animals to humans -- can be safely studied.

The department says about 10 percent of the proposed new facility's space will be classified at Level Four.

The potential sites being studied, besides Plum Island, are Flora, Miss.; Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas. A Homeland Security study found the numbers of livestock in the areas surrounding the mainland sites ranged from 130,000-plus in Georgia to more than half a million in Kansas.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told UPI the environmental impact assessment was just one of a number of factors the department would consider when it made the decision about where to site the lab in late fall.

Other factors would include cost, public comment, and policy and regulatory considerations, she said.

Officials say the isolated location of the existing center -- the island is accessible only by ferry and helicopter -- poses challenges for its workforce and would dramatically impact the cost of construction at the site, which is slated to begin in 2010 and take four years.

Topics: Amy Kudwa
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