Panel: DHS assessment of biodefense facility falls short

The Homeland Security Department's risk assessment of a proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., overlooked critical issues that could substantially elevate the risk of accidental release and spread of pathogens, an independent review found.

Among the issues Homeland Security neglected to consider was maintenance and cleaning of large animal pens that would result in aerosol formation of pathogens and emissions much greater than those assumed in its assessment, said James Roth, the Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor at Iowa State University, and a member of the expert panel that reviewed DHS' risk assessment.

The National Research Council, which conducted the review, is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent body of experts chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific and technical matters. Congress ordered the review, but did not ask the council to conduct a separate risk assessment or provide recommendations.

Homeland Security's risk assessment indicates the probability of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease resulting from a laboratory release of the contagion -- one of the most infectious viruses the facility would study -- approaches 70 percent over 50 years, with an economic impact of $9 billion to $50 billion. But the review committee said the risks and costs could be significantly higher.

The state-of-the-art containment facility in Kansas is intended to replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, an Agriculture Department facility off the coast of Long Island. Congress ordered Homeland Security to conduct a site-specific risk assessment for the new facility before it obligates construction funds. After auditors at the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about DHS' analysis, Congress asked the National Research Council to determine the assessment's validity.

Ronald Atlas, chairman of the committee that evaluated DHS' study, said it was "an excellent first step," but it failed to provide a valid overall assessment of the risks associated with the Kansas facility.

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