Feds Plan Controversial Disease Research Facility in Kansas, Some Fear Outbreaks

A federal disease research facility planned for Manhattan, Kan., has sparked controversy after a safety study reported a 70 percent chance of an outbreak of dangerous and contagious diseases.

Located about 120 miles west of Kansas City, the proposed $451 million National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would study dangerous foreign animal and zoonotic diseases, which are passed between humans and animals. It would be the first time in almost 75 years that research of highly contagious foot and mouth disease would be allowed to take place on the U.S. mainland.

"All our animals are susceptible. We don't vaccinate against it," said Jim Roth, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Iowa State University at Ames. "If it were introduced into this country accidentally or intentionally, it would have a huge economic impact."

In a report critiquing the Homeland Security risk assessment study, the National Research Council issued several warnings about the current plan for the facility, chief among them, it said, was a 70 percent chance of a foot and mouth disease outbreak over the building's 50-year lifespan.

Although the Department of Homeland Security assessment put the cost of an outbreak between $9 billion and $50 billion, the report suggests the cost would be much higher.

Roth, who sits on the National Research Council committee that studied Homeland Security's risk assessment, called foot and mouth disease, also known as hoof and mouth disease, the "most highly contagious viral disease of man or animal."

A Homeland Security official called the National Research Council's concerns preliminary.

"The National Academy's calculation was based on a notional facility, and did not account for any of the recommended mitigation measures that DHS has committed to incorporating into the final design," the official told ABCNews.com. "DHS will not build or operate the NBAF unless it can be done in a safe manner."

The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, would replace the aging research facility on Plum Island, located about two miles of the coast of New York's Long Island.

The Kansas site was selected, according to the Department of Homeland Security, for its proximity to what it calls the "major hub of the veterinary pharmaceutical industry" as well as to Kansas State University, which operates a major veterinary school.

Foot and mouth disease, a severe viral infection that affects cloven-footed animals such cattle and pigs, is one of the most dreaded diseases among farmers.

An outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 had grave economic consequences for the country's agriculture industry -- with more than 2,000 cases, thousands of healthy animals were slaughtered as a preventive measure.

While the Homeland Security assessment identified a number of potential outbreak risks -- including that workers do not currently use respiratory devices while handling foot and mouth disease samples because the disease is not transferable to humans -- the National Research Council found others.

"Human error," said Ron Atlas, chairman of the National Research Council committee, "was likely the greatest risk."

Tornadoes and Diseases and Cows, Oh My

There has not been a case of foot and mouth disease in the United States since 1929. Research into foot and mouth disease has not been permitted on the U.S. mainland since 1937.

But the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would change that. According to a Homeland Security timeline, the project calls for construction to take place between March 2011 and May 2012. Transferring materials from Plum Island would occur between 2016 and 2018. Research and vaccine trials are slated to begin in 2008.

Homeland Security spokesman Chris Ortman said his department would not receive permits from either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture until "all biosafety and biosecurity requirements have been met.

"The United States needs to be on the frontline of livestock animal health research and defend America against foreign animal, emerging and zoonotic diseases," Ortman said in an e-mailed statement. "NBAF will be a modern research facility that will protect the U.S. from threats to our animal agriculture, food supply and public health."

Though the National Research Council committee was not tasked with studying the risks associated with mainland research in general, both Atlas and Roth said said in testimony before Congress that they believed it could be done safely, pointing to a similar biocontainment lab in Winnipeg, Canada.

"We're not saying run for the hills," Atlas said.

And there are benefits to shuttering Plum Island.

Both Homeland Security and the National Research Council agreed that the current facility was no longer adequate. It was not built, or renovated, to modern containment standards and Homeland Security determined it would cost more to update Plum Island than replace it.

Also, Atlas said, a facility on the mainland would likely attract "higher class researchers" who would have normally shied away from the extreme isolation of Plum Island.

But the Kansas location does present its own special challenges.

First -- tornadoes. National Bio- and Agro-Defense would be built smack in the middle of what is known as "Tornado Alley."

Homeland Security did take into account both the risk of a twister carrying the airborne disease, and also possible damage to the structure, but Atlas said his committee found other, more likely risk scenarios.

Chief among them, the proximity of the site -- just a block or two -- to Kansas State University's football stadium, which has a capacity of 50,000. The veterinary school and its animals are also nearby.

There is also the risk of inadvertently carrying the disease out of the facility on clothes or within human airways, and infecting animals before they are shipped to other parts of the country, meaning the disease could make it to all corners of the United States, plus Canada and Mexico, before symptoms even start.

According to the committee's report, Homeland Security recognized in its own study that Manhattan, Kan., is "a hub of animal movement for the entire United States" and that "in reality, as infected animals are moved throughout the country, pockets of the infection would be expected to occur great distances from the initial focus of infection."

But National Bio- and Agro-Defense would not be the first high-level containment facility on the U.S. mainland, the Homeland Security official pointed out. Such labs are already safely run in Atlanta, Iowa and Maryland.

"The rigorous construction requirements and operational procedures in place today have successfully protected the local environments around federal high-biocontainment facilities on the U.S. mainland for decades," the official said, and modern technologies only improve that protective capability for future facilities like the proposed NBAF.

Residents of Manhattan, Kansas Generally Support Proposal for Research Facility

Despite all the potential what-ifs of the proposed facility, the bulk of local residents are happy to have it.

"We had some folks that were concerned about it. There's no question about that," Manhattan City Manager Roh Fehr said. "But I'd say the numbers were fairly small, compared to the numbers that were supporting it."

The city, he said, had already put up $5 million toward the new containment facility, most of which was used for site preparation, such as moving utlity lines. In return, the facility will bring about 1,300 construction jobs, and then between 350 and 600 professional and technical jobs once it opens.

"We're extremely pleased to be able to host this facility," Fehr said.

The city has also already lived with a similar, albeit much smaller, biocontainment facility that is run by Kansas State University. There have been no problems with diseases at that facility, Fehr said. The university does not house foot and mouth disease.

Alhough the National Research Council's prediction of a widespread outbreak are worthy of attention, Fehr said, he questioned the committee's reasoning.

"It's pretty alarming, but I think there's quite a bit of question about the way they came up with their assessment," he said. "They took the worse-case scenario in each of the risk and then factored in absolutely zero mitigation factors."

Atlas said the committee came up with the prediction of 70 percent by taking Homeland Security's yearly risk assessment -- which ran around 1 percent each year for respiratory transfer and the probability of foot and mouth disease being accidentally transported by a worker -- and aggregated it over the facilities expected lifespan.

"They identified a number of scenarios by which an agent could escape containment in the lab and spread," Atlas said, "and the magnitude of the impact."

Click here to learn more about the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.