The Government Accountability Office released a report yesterday critical of the decision to house the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility in ManhattanKan., and conduct research on foot and mouth disease on the U.S. mainland.

A letter from Tom Thornton, president and CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, notes that the Department of Homeland Security has responded to the study and offers a vigorous defense of both modern research and the extremely thorough environmental impact statement process undertaken for the NBAF site selection.

DHS challenged a number of GAO assertions, noting that GAO:

  • Was critical of a model used by DHS for accident analysis; however, there is extensive scientific justification for the use of the model for biological aerosol dispersal.
  • Did not provide analysis that a different model or methodology would yield different results, nor did the draft report offer any recommendations.
  • Did not consider that the risk assessment approach was based on a National Academies of Science report on developing a risk assessment for operating a high biocontainment laboratory.
  • Ignored the fact that modern biocontainment technology allows facilities on the mainland U.S. to safely conduct research on pathogens dangerous to humans in urban areas such as Atlanta, Ga., and Frederick, Md., with no public exposures.
  • Discounted the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) determination that a FMD virus outbreak on an island would be considered no different from an FMD outbreak on the mainland with respect to the economic impact such an outbreak would have on the nation's meat-export trade status.

Thornton   says the exhaustive, three-year, National Environmental Policy Act selection process DHS used for the NBAF included thorough risk, environmental, and security assessments, which were peer reviewed by experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, and MIT Lincoln Lab. DHS and USDA determined that foot and mouth disease research can be safely studied on the mainland, with an extremely low risk of an accidental release estimated at one in every 10,000 to 1,000,000 years of operation.

Further, DHS has noted there are significant benefits to conducting animal disease research in Kansas, and a risk mitigation assessment for the NBAF will determine the required facility design and engineering controls to protect the lab during its operations in Kansas.

“Safety will be built into every square inch of this state-of-the-art facility, and that is non-negotiable,” Thornton says. “At the same time, Kansas is intensely focused on protecting the American food supply and agriculture economy, and we bring unique research expertise, infrastructure, and industrial concentration to this national bioscience challenge.”