San Antonio site pushed for biodefense lab

Published 5:26 pm Friday, August 8, 2008

Researchers, veterinarians and state and local officials were overwhelmingly in favor of putting a new national biodefense lab in San Antonio, but a few residents expressed concerns Thursday about an accidental release of animal disease into the community.

The Department of Homeland Security collected public comments on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at a federal hearing. Texas Research Park, just outside San Antonio, is among six possible sites for the facility.

The new facility would replace the existing 24-acre research complex on Plum Island, which is about 100 miles northeast of New York City in the Long Island Sound. Researchers at the new facility could study foot-and-mouth disease, classical and African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia.

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The other locations the U.S. is considering are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and Flora, Miss. Another alternative would be construction of a new research lab on Plum Island, home to the aging Animal Disease Center.

“We want NBAF in San Antonio, Texas,” said York Duncan, president of Texas Research Park Foundation. “The park is master-planned for facilities like this.”

Eleanor Crow, who lives near the research park, listed several other questions she wants answered about water quality and the safeguarding of the diseases.

“So which road are they going to use to drive this stuff on?” Crow said after the hearing. “Which plane are they going to fly it on?”

James Wright said possible economic benefits to San Antonio are outweighing safety concerns.

“Biological safety should be the primary factor,” said Wright, of Harper. “There is no such probability of 100 percent biosecurity.”

Harold Timboe, retired associate vice president for research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said the risk is “exceedingly small.”

Besides, said Timboe, who has helped lead San Antonio’s bid, “San Antonio is better prepared with a huge number of federal assets to respond to small accidents (and) large incidents.”

Texas Research Park would offer 100 acres straddling the Bexar County and Medina County line for the facility. The research park is west of San Antonio a few miles outside city limits.

A final decision is expected later this year, said James Johnson, Homeland Security’s director of national laboratories. Construction on the $450 million facility would begin in 2010 and it would open in 2015.

The public can comment on a more than 1,000-page draft environmental impact statement analyzing the possible sites until Aug. 25.

Moving the facility from Plum Island to the U.S. mainland and near herds of livestock has raised concerns about a catastrophic outbreak. The foot-and-mouth virus does not infect humans but could devastate herds of cattle, swine, lambs and sheep.

In June, Homeland Security released the draft statement calculating that economic losses in an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could surpass $4 billion if the lab were built near livestock herds in Kansas or Texas.

That would be roughly $1 billion higher than the government’s estimate of losses for a hypothetical outbreak from its existing lab on Plum Island.

Bob Hillman, Texas state veterinarian and executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission, said having the lab near livestock is a benefit.

“We believe it prudent to have a laboratory close to the livestock populations that we can rely on for effective disease mitigation,” he said.

The facility would also study two diseases — the Hendra and Nipah viruses — requiring a “biosafety level 4” designation. Biosafety levels relate to the level of protection required to work in a lab.

Biosafety level 4 is the most stringent and can involve the study of microorganisms that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy.

Promoters of the San Antonio site noted that Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio already has a biosafety level 4 laboratory that it has operated since 2000.

“Our safety record has been impeccable,” said John Kerr, president of the foundation.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison and members of Texas’ delegation to the U.S. House have expressed their support for the facility.

Homeland Security was holding two sessions Thursday to gather oral and written comments.

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