We need the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Factility (NBAF), but given the need to cut government spending, should we consider less-comprehensive but less-costly options? That is the focus of a report the National Academies of Science (NAS) released last week titled “Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs For Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options.”

The Department of Homeland Security commissioned the report, which outlines potential advantages and disadvantages of these three options:

  • Constructing the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility as currently designed (in Manhattan, Kan.).
  • Constructing a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility of reduced size and scope.
  • Maintaining the Plum Island Facility and leveraging large-animal biosafety Level 4 capacity of other partners.

A persistent stumbling block for the facility as currently planned (in addition to biosecurity) is the cost, which has climbed to an estimated $1.14 billion. Scaling back the NBAF and farming some of the research out to other laboratories could save some of that initial outlay, but the report notes several drawbacks.

The authors note there are a number of existing animal laboratories around the country rated for “biosafety level 3 or 4.” These are the highest levels of security against escape off pathogens, and the scientific goals of the NBAF require inclusion of level 4 facilities capable of handling large animals. Building a smaller NBAF that could leverage the infrastructure and talent from existing facilities could be more efficient than concentrating the entire program at the Manhattan facility. However, the researchers found that of the level-3 laboratories in the United States, an insufficient number are equipped to conduct research on diseases of large animals such as cattle and swine, particularly foot and mouth disease. The current level-3 facility at Plum Island, New York, is dated and increasingly costly to run. And although there are several level-4 laboratories in the United States, they do not have the capacity to handle large animals.

As for the Plum Island facility, the authors note it does not meet current high standards for high-contain­ment laboratories, and lacks biosafety level-4 facilities. Keeping that facility in operation would incur additional costs and could mean relying on international partners for research requiring level -4 biosecurity, but access to those large-animal biosafety level 4 capabilities could be limited in times of critical need.

Overall, the committee stressed the need for a national role in the coordination of the U.S. disease surveillance and response system is essen­tial. A central federal laboratory or laboratories would be the cornerstone of this integrated system, and there is a critical need to build a large-animal biosafety level-4 laboratory in the United States.

With regard to the three options analyzed, the committee concluded that the NBAF as currently proposed includes all components of the ideal laboratory infrastruc­ture in a single location and has been designed to meet current and anticipated future mission needs, but the proposed facility also has drawbacks.

A scaled-back NBAF working in partnership with a network of other laboratories could effectively protect the United States from foreign animal and zoonotic dis­eases, reduce redundancies and potentially reduce costs. Determining the amount of cost savings from this option would require additional study.

The option of upgrading the Plum Island facility in place of building the new NBAF appears to be the least viable of the three options covered in the report. However, the authors note because foot-and-mouth disease research remains critical for the U.S. animal health system, “it will be essential to continue to support the Plum Island facility until an alternative facility is authorized, constructed, commissioned, and approved for work on foot-and-mouth virus.”

Read a summary and the full draft report from the National Academies of Science.