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Should a new pathogen lab be built in Tornado Alley?

animal disease research centerIs it a good idea to build an infectious animal disease lab in an agricultural area in Kansas that is within the nation’s Tornado Alley?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has plans to do just that, but a report draft from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—obtained by The Washington Post—calls the reasoning for the move not “scientifically defensible,” according to the paper.

The lab in question is the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which studies biological threats that could sicken U.S. livestock. The current facilities—formerly run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and now also managed by the DHS—are on Plum Island (off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.) and have been in operation for more than 50 years. But, according to the DHS’s Web site, “there is physically not enough room at the Plum Island Facility” to expand research to new diseases.

That’s why the DHS has plans to build a multi-million-dollar new lab in Manhattan, Kan. There, researchers could study novel diseases “that have not been thoroughly characterized before,” the department’s Web site explains—an undertaking tagged as “Biosafety Level 4”—not allowed at level 3-rated Plum Island. 

But starting such a sensitive laboratory on the U.S. mainland in a highly agricultural area—and one that is frequently struck by damaging storms—has raised eyebrows at the GAO. After looking into the methods that went into selecting the site, investigators found them lacking.

“Drawing conclusions about relocating research with highly infectious exotic animal pathogens from questionable methodology could result in regrettable consequences,” the GAO report draft noted. Those “regrettable consequences” could include the spread of an infectious disease to U.S. animals—and even humans. The costly 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the U.K. was a result of an accident at a similar research facility, the Post reported.

Five other sites had been in the running for the facility as of a 2007 report [pdf], some of them campaigning quite hard for the dubious selection, which, the Post reported, would likely bring in some $3.5 billion to a local economy.

“This really boils down to politics at its very worst and public officials who are more concerned about erecting some gleaming new research building than thinking about what’s best for the general public,” Michael Guiffre, of a Texas A&M group that had lobbied for the facility, told the Post

The official GAO report is expected to be released later this week. 

Image of the existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., courtesy of USDA via Wikimedia Commons

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