HPM: Is the NBAF worth the risk?

Kansas political leaders and top officials at Kansas State University are united in support of a plan to bring the nation's premier agricultural disease laboratory to the K-State campus. But many people remain uneasy about bringing dangerous pathogens into the nation’s heartland -- pathogens that could devastate the livestock industry and possibly harm humans as well.

By Bryan Thompson (Manhattan, Kansas)

The fears surfaced again, when a committee of the National Research Council conducted a hearing in Manhattan.  Sylvia Beeman represents a group called Biosecurity for the Heartland. 

She said “We felt vindicated when the NRC reiterated our concerns. But we, the public, still don’t know how, or if, our concerns are to be met.”

She’s referring to a previous National Research Council report about the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility or NBAF. The new lab in Manhattan would replace an outmoded facility on Plum Island, just off the East Coast. The NRC detailed several major shortcomings in the risk analysis for NBAF. The analysis seriously underestimated the risk of a release of a dangerous animal virus, such as Foot and Mouth Disease. There’s no cure for that disease, or for several others that would be studied at NBAF—some of which may be able to jump from animals to humans. That worries Manhattan farmer and rancher Sandy Cravens.

He said, “I’m just a dumb farmer, but I am scared to death, and I think people should really, really, really look into the dangers and the safety of our community.”

Cravens and several others think it makes no sense to put such a lab in the heartland. They believe an isolated island, like Plum Island, offers an extra layer of protection against the accidental spread of pathogens. That’s why Wabaunsee County rancher Stephen Anderson isn’t swayed by the promise of jobs and economic development associated with NBAF.

“Jobs, and politics, and patronage should not supercede location, location, location, and the interest of public safety,” Anderson said.

Anderson goes on to say many of the greatest disasters in recent memory can be attributed to three inescapable risk factors, and they were all unexpected.

One such risk that’s received a lot of attention is the threat of tornadoes. The original design would be susceptible to a release of pathogens in the event of an F2 tornado. A much stronger F4 tornado hit Manhattan as recently as 2008. The previous risk assessment called for NBAF to be redesigned to withstand an F2—and possibly an F3—tornado. Manhattan resident Bill Dorsett sees that as inadequate—and an example of cutting corners to save money. 

“How can anyone adequately or validly project future Congressional budget cuts? The absolutely last thing we need is a budget germ lab, run by the lowest bidder,” he said.

The initial risk assessment made no mention of hardening NBAF to withstand an F4 or F5 tornado, like the ones that devastated Greensburg and Joplin. But even if the facility is never structurally damaged by a tornado, a twister could still cause pathogens to be released, according to Tom Manney. The K-State professor emeritus of physics and biology says the design of biocontainment labs relies on negative air pressure to keep any airborne germs in the secure area. Fans constantly pull the air into high-efficiency filters, so that air can flow into the research area, but not back out. Manney says a study done in Texas shows that a tornado could easily cause air pressure outside the building to drop so low that the ventilation system would be overwhelmed…

“In brief, the tornado—at a distance of a third of a mile—could reduce pressure outside the chamber 50-fold below the inside pressure within a few minutes, and could do this without compromising the structural integrity of the building," Manney said.

That’s a scenario Stephen Higgs has never heard of. He’s the director of research at the Biosecurity Research Institute, a facility already in operation at K-State with many of the same security systems that NBAF will have. He was working, however, at a research facility in Galveston when a category five hurricane struck.

Higgs said, “You know, all research stops, essentially, in advance of an event like that. All of the agents are put in sealed, locked freezers, or whatever. The labs will be decontaminated before people exit, and then you’re in safe, so it’s not like the agents are up and around.”

Higgs says any infected research animals would be euthanized, and their remains sterilized. However, tornadoes tend to strike without a lot of advanced warning. There may well be too little time in the event of a tornado to complete all of those precautions. Supporters of NBAF point out, however, that there’s no way to avoid any and all risks. Landon Fulmer is the policy director for Governor Sam Brownback…

He said, “The fact of the matter is, if we don’t build the NBAF, we put ourselves, our country, our livestock industry at much greater risk than if we do build NBAF. The fact of the matter is that naturally occurring outbreaks of these diseases, whether it’s a zoonotic or an FMD outbreak, are completely devastating.”

Fulmer also said without NBAF, the US would have to rely on research done in foreign countries…and in the event of an outbreak, the response time would be slower. For the moment, Congress is withholding funding for construction of NBAF until an updated risk assessment has been validated by the National Research Council. The panel expects to get its first look at the new risk assessment later this month. They hope to have their review completed sometime this summer.