Report questions choice of Kansas site for lab

Published 12:30 am Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The government’s study of the risks of moving foot-and-mouth disease research from an island off New York to Kansas failed to adequately track the potential spread of the virus and its economic impact if accidentally released, congressional investigators said in a draft report.

The findings that the Homeland Security Department did not adequately study different risks at sites that competed for a new lab to replace an aging one at Plum Island, N.Y., may boost efforts in Congress to slow the planned construction of a $500 million National Bio and Agro-Defense lab in Manhattan, Kan. The department hoped to break ground next year.

The department’s conclusions on dispersal risks were based on an inadequate model and its economic analysis was based on that flawed model, the Government Accountability Office said.

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“Drawing conclusions about relocating research with highly infectious exotic animal pathogens from questionable methodology could result in regrettable consequences,” the Government Accountability Office said in its draft report.

Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were finalists for the lab, which also will study other deadly diseases. The Homeland Security Department also considered building a new lab at Plum Island.

The department’s own experts raised concerns about the department’s analyses of the spread of the virus and economic impact before choosing the Kansas site, the GAO said.

The government’s Biodefense Knowledge Center, which conducted the economic analysis, said several months before DHS recommended the Kansas site that a better aerosol dispersion model, better input data and more accident scenarios were needed, the GAO said.

Research on foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle and swine, has been kept off the U.S. mainland for years for fear of infecting domestic cattle. The disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 1929.

The Homeland Security Department said it will address the GAO’s findings in a 29-page response and at a congressional hearing on Thursday, but it did not address the criticism Monday.

“We have not yet been provided access to the final GAO report,” said spokesman Matthew Chandler.

The findings were first reported by The Washington Post.

The House has withheld additional funding until Homeland Security commissions an independent study, and the Senate is requiring another DHS study. The different demands will be worked out when a conference committee negotiates the department’s funding bill.

Tom Thornton, president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said the GAO report was “disappointing.” He said the research to be done at the lab is no different than the research on human pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“That is not on an island, where collaboration and infrastructure are limited,” Thornton said.

The GAO findings also throw into question whether the Kansas site is indeed the best location for the research.

A group of Texas businesses and bioscience experts has sued the Homeland Security Department in Federal Claims Court over its decision to locate the lab in Kansas.

Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF USA, a Montana livestock group that has pushed for better study of the risks of moving the research inland, said the GAO’s findings should give other livestock raisers that have backed the lab cause for concern.

“The consequences of an inadvertent release would be devastating not only to the cattle producers, but due to concentration of our industry in the area where this facility would be relocated the results of an inadvertent release could cause a shortage of meat for consumers,” Bullard said.

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