Department seeks location to replace aging Plum Island lab and expand its mission
By John Dudley Miller | February 6, 2006
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is scouting places to build a $451 million, 500,000 square feet, high-security biolab to replace the 55-year-old animal disease lab it operates on Plum Island, just off the northern tip of Long Island, New York.
The proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) will help modernize homeland security, "to meet the needs that are current, not the needs of the 50s when the current programs were initiated and the facilities, for the most part, originally designed," Harley Moon, chair of the National Academy of Sciences committee on animal diseases and a former director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, told The Scientist.
Most of the buildings at Plum Island ? the only US laboratory capable of handling large cattle in Biosafety Level three (BSL-3) security -- were constructed in the early 50s, and are aging badly. In addition, a government report two years ago severely criticized security on the island. DHS has not said whether it will close Plum Island when the NBAF is opened.
According to a written DHS announcement last month, NBAF will join together researchers from three government departments -- the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and DHS -- to combat foreign animal diseases that Plum Island already works on (such as foot and mouth disease in cattle) and animal diseases that can infect humans, such as avian flu and anthrax. DHS also expects the new lab to expand on Plum Island's ability to find drugs, vaccines, and other countermeasures against these diseases. The lab's new "capability is needed to fill a critical gap in the nation's agro and biodefense plan," and may include BSL-3 and -4 facilities, according to the DHS statement.
DHS and USDA officials declined to respond to any of The Scientist's questions about the lab.
The competition to build and run NBAF is open to federal agencies, state governments, universities, industry, and other organizations. Interested groups must notify DHS by March 31. Construction is expected to begin in Fall 2008, with the facility up and running in Spring 2010, according to the Congressional justification document DHS submitted to Congress last year. This fiscal year, Congress authorized $23 million to begin designing the facility.
Corrie Brown, a professor at the University of Georgia, told The Scientist that NBAF is needed because globalization is causing the most worrisome agricultural diseases to move around the world with increasing frequency, necessitating better diagnostic capabilities to detect and contain them. "So the diseases we used to think we could stop at our borders, we're pretty sure we probably can't stop them at our borders anymore," she said.
However, the plan is not without its critics. Edward Hammond, US director of the Sunshine Project, an activist group which studies bioterrorism policy, disagrees that NBAF needs half a million square feet of space. "It's another example of overbuild," he told The Scientist. "We're building far more BSL space than we can profitably use."
Several details have not been worked out?for instance, the lab's location. The federal government has tried several times to upgrade the existing facility on Plum Island from BSL-3 for agriculture to BSL-4, Hammond said, but local political opposition has always scuttled those plans.
However, Moon and other experts said the most likely candidates to house the lab would be land-grant universities, because they all have agriculture departments. When The Scientist queried several of them, Kansas State University veterinary school dean Ralph Richardson said his university would definitely apply, while a spokesman from Washington State University said the school would not apply.
John Dudley Miller
Links within this article
J.D. Miller, "Animal lab inquiry," The Scientist, October 22, 2003
National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility; Notice of Request for Expression of Interest, Federal Register, January 19, 2006.
Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Fiscal Year 2006 Congressional Justification
"Fact Sheet: National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility," Department of Homeland Security, August 22, 2005.
Congressman Bishop, Senator Clinton Discuss Plum Island's Future with Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff, Joint Press Release, October 6, 2005