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

Facility in Kansas would put diseases on mainland for first time in 80 years.

ByABC News
November 18, 2010, 12:05 PM

Nov. 19, 2010— -- 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."