Mainland animal lab poses risks: GAO

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not demonstrated that moving foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) research from an island lab in New York to a linkurl:new mainland animal research facility;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23091/ would be safe, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told a Congressional committee this morning (May 22). "We found that linkurl:DHS;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54186/ has not conducted or commissioned any study" to assess whether

May 22, 2008
Alla Katsnelson
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not demonstrated that moving foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) research from an island lab in New York to a linkurl:new mainland animal research facility;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23091/ would be safe, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told a Congressional committee this morning (May 22). "We found that linkurl:DHS;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54186/ has not conducted or commissioned any study" to assess whether FMD can be safely researched on the mainland, Nancy Kingsbury, managing director of applied research and methods at the GOA, told the committee. Instead, she said, the agency based its decision on a 2002 study conducted by the USDA that examined technical feasibility, not safety. "That's a very different question," she said. The FMD virus is one of the most contagious of all animal diseases, and since 1955 research on the pathogen has been conducted exclusively in a lab on Plum Island, about three miles off the coast of Long Island, NY. The Plum Island lab is linkurl:in dire need of renovations,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23731/ however, and the government has proposed relocating FMD research to a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to be built on the mainland, which would house the largest high-security biocontainment facility in the world. So far, five finalist sites have been proposed for the facility: Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, NC.; Flora, Miss., and San Antonio, TX. The plan has been greeted with controversy, with opponents saying that an FMD leak -- such as occurred in the UK in 2001 and linkurl:2007;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54423/ -- so close to US farms and ranches could wreak economic havoc, and cost the country as much as $40 billion. Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich), a member of the committee, noted at the hearing that the 2002 report on which DHS based its assertion that a mainland facility would be safe in fact supported renovating the Plum Island lab rather than moving FMD research to a new facility. The GAO also said that DHS has refused to turn over risk assessment documents that have been commissioned for the Plum Island research facility, and the five mainland sites under consideration for the new facility -- making a true assessment of safety impossible. According to the GAO, an accidental release occurred at Plum Island in 1978, but the virus didn't spread thanks to the lab's island location. New FMD research facilities recently built in Germany and Denmark have been sequestered islands for safety reasons as well, Kinsgbury told the committee. But Congressman Chip Pickering (R-Miss) argued that a land-based facility would indeed be safe. He said the protection offered by a 3-6 mile distance from the mainland was illusory, since winds could easily carry the virus such a distance to the mainland.