biodefense blows

One year ago, San Antonio’s chances of landing Homeland Security’s $500-million golden goose of germ research — the National Bio- & Agro-Defense Facility — were good. Three of the eighteen sites being considered were in Alamo City.

We had Brooks City-Base, Texas Research Park, and the nation’s only privately run BSL-4 capable lab in the country at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Just up the road, Texas A&M was dropped after embarrassing and potentially dangerous lab mishaps. An escaped baboon running for dear life from the heavily primatized Southwest Foundation probably didn’t increase SFBR’s rating with the Feds, either.

Homeland is considering a variety of factors in the site selection process, including public support, access to existing infrastructure, ability to attract qualified researchers, and security.

When the shortlist was announced last summer, the odds on San Antonio remained statistically the same at one-in-six, but a strongly supportive and/or silent public played to the boosters’ advantage. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by the research community to bring N-BAF to San Antonio.

However, since the U.S. General Accounting Office required Der Homeland to quantify the risk of outbreak from the center tasked with studying some of the most deadly diseases known, it has become apparent that expanding the existing home for zoonotic diseases, those that can be passed from human to animal and back again, may be the best option after all. (GAO doubts research lab can be moved safely.)

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the tip of Long Island was not under consideration when Homeland first began the site selection process but was added along the way as protests in various communities took root.

U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, regarding the possible expansion of anti-bio-terror research off Long Island:

“We continue to stand firmly opposed to placing a BSL-4 facility on Plum Island due to its close proximity to major metropolitan areas.”

[Plum Island Animal Disease Center, 107 miles from New York City]

Plum Island was originally sited where it is in the 1950s to keep risky research into foot-and-mouth disease off of the U.S. mainland. However, since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has seen a surge in bio-defense research across the country (and a lack of oversight and a rash of security breaches) that has made siting a new facility closer to current research centers more desirable.

Consider that in 46 states there are now 1,356 BSL-3 labs monitored by the CDC and 15 BSL-4 labs. The total number of BSL-3 labs (those outside CDC range) is unknown.

Since 2003, there have been more than 100 accidents and cases of missing deadly germ shipments. A GAO investigation found no single agency is tracking the bio-safety labs and oversight is “fragmented,” relying heavily on self-reporting.

In its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Homeland officials report that a Rift Valley Fever Working Group determined that an RVF outbreak under worst-case scenario would not be identified until day 27, “by which time the number of infected animals and humans have tripled.” Such an event would cost the U.S. economy more than $50 billion and untold lives. The cost of a foot-and-mouth outbreak would also run into the billions.

Of course, outbreaks cost the same whether they are intentionally or accidentally triggered.
So it would seem that barring any major problems with the Plum site, security would rule the day and the island would keep on playing host for this most sensative of research. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement repeatedly references the benefit of the island location.

• “Plum Island’s relative isolation from the surrounding environment, including its distance to livestock areas of any consequence and its prevailing seaward winds, would render that location a lower risk to the regional and national agricultural economy than the mainland sites
• “The Plum Island site is near the New York City metropolitan area, but its location on an island reduces the likelihood of viral transmission to people or animals …
• “The generally colder climate of Plum Island compared to the other alternative sites could reduce the ability of mosquitoes … or their offspring to survive and maintain the virus over time. Hence, from a human health economic perspective, Plum Island could pose a smaller threat compared to the other alternative sites.
• “The other alternative sites are relatively similar in economic health risks, although establishment of infected mosquitoes in one of the southeastern sites could lead to a more rapid dispersal of the disease to larger human populations such as in the Atlanta or San Antonio areas and ultimately lead to a permanent reservoir of virus
• “Of the proposed location sites, only Plum Island has no livestock populations in the vicinity of the proposed site. The other five locations have livestock population densities either between 10 and 20 livestock per kilometer or between 20 and 30 livestock per kilometer …
• “From an agricultural economic perspective, the mainland sites are not significantly different from each other in terms of risk to the local economy … Many of the alternative sites are located relatively close to human populations; for example, Athens is only about 60 miles from Atlanta, Georgia, which has a metropolitan population exceeding 5 million people. Similarly, the Texas site is located on the outskirts of the City of San Antonio, which in 2007 had a population approaching 2.6 million.”

So, all things being equal, and the naturally enhanced security of off-East-Coast research, why the push to bring the germ lab onshore? Well, all things are not equal.

The Plum Island site would cost an estimated $250 million more than any of the onshore alternatives. The $500-million project quickly becomes a $750-million project when it meets island real estate.

Who’s game for a small wager that USHS gambles to save a quarter-billion in short-term savings for the heightened risk of losing multiple billions in lives and greenbacks down the road?

[LATE ADDITION: Here’s a little window of insight on the Plum Island issue I just found in a report to Congress from May. Ah, sell the safest site to pay for one that is less-so… Brilliant!]

Selling Plum Island
One option raised by DHS has been to sell Plum Island and use the profit from such a sale to offset the construction costs of the NBAF, the decontamination and remediation costs for the island, and the demolition costs for the PIADC. Under this proposal, DHS would sell Plum Island in FY2009 or FY2010, arrange with the purchaser to allow operations to continue until the NBAF construction was finished, and transfer Plum Island to the purchaser only after clean up of the island had been completed.71 Most sales of surplus property are handled by the General Services Administration and any funds received redirected into the Treasury.

The DHS has proposed to add statutory language to the FY2009 DHS appropriations act providing express authority to liquidate the Plum Island assets and retain the proceeds of the sale. The proposed language indicates that these funds could be used to offset costs associated with construction of the NBAF; however, the proposed language would also allow the DHS Secretary to use the net proceeds of the Plum Island sale for “other real property capital asset needs.”73 Under this proposed language, the net proceeds from the sale of Plum Island would be retained by DHS until fully spent rather than reverting to the Treasury at a future date


Public hearing
San Antonio, Texas
Thursday, August 7, 2008
12:30-4:30pm and 6-10pm
Radisson Hill Country Resort Ballroom
9800 Westover Hills Boulevard
San Antonio, TX 78251

Study: An integrated, BSL-3 and -4 research facility “would allow for basic research, diagnostic testing and validation, countermeasure development (i.e., vaccines and antiviral therapies), and diagnostic training for high-consequence livestock diseases with potentially devastating impacts to U.S. agriculture and threats to public health.”

Cost: Construction costs placed at $500 million. Could start in 2010 and be finished in four years.

Utility Needs: Access to 52,000,000 gallons of water each year; 29,000 gallons per year of wastewater capacity; 52 megawatts of electricity. Special needs include Liquid Biowaste Treatment and Carcass Disposal systems for all those patriotic pigs and cows.

Jobs Provided: Less than 70.

Outbreak Economics: Promoters say the facility would be worth billions to SA’s economy. However, DEIS states a long-shot outbreak of foot-and-mouth from Texas Research Park would cost an estimated $4.1 billion. National ag groups say foot-and-mouth outbreak costs on the mainland could reach $34 billion.
An outbreak of Rift Valley Fever, on the other hand, would cause $50 billion in human and livestock deaths, as well as hits to trade and tourism, according to DEIS.

Bio-Safety Levels
For working with microorganisms that are not known to cause disease in healthy human humans. Think high school science room or community college introductory microbiology classes.

For working with agents of “moderate risk” to people and the environment. The agents studied are usually those researchers have been exposed to in the community and have already developed an immune response.

For handling infectious agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal diseases as a result of inhalation. Should be located away from high-traffic areas.


Research involving large agricultural animals and foreign and emerging diseases designated High Consequence Pathogens that may cause serious consequences in livestock. This level of study would take up to 73 percent of the N-BAF’s square footage.
N-BAF study would include: African swine fever; classical swine fever; contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, foot-and-mouth disease, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever.

For handling exotic pathogens that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease in animals and humans through the aerosol route and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy. This is where the space suits, airlocks, and chemical showers come into use.
N-BAF study would include: Hendra virus and Nipah virus.
— Source: Centers for Disease Control & NBAF DEIS

Public Comments
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Science and Technology Directorate
James V. Johnson
Mail Stop #2100
245 Murray Lane, SW
Building 410
Washington, DC 20528
ONLINE: (click on Public Involvement)
1-866-508-NBAF (6223)
1-866-501-NBAF (6223)

[Originally posted on the Current’s CurBlog. Additional verbiage is from this week’s Last Words.]

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3 responses to “biodefense blows

  1. It comes from reading the DEIS.

    From the report:

    “ Population
    The NBAF would directly employ 326 people. The majority of these employees are expected to be research scientists and other specialized staff, and based on census journey-to-work data, 296 are expected to relocate to the study area from elsewhere in the country.”

    So if 296 employees are coming from elsewhere, this suggests to me that local folks would only have a shot at 30 jobs.

    However, in other areas of the DEIS it states that direct employment would be (as you stated) as low as 250 or as high as 350. So, really, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.


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