Vying to Counter Barnyard Plagues

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

U.S. federal officials yesterday announced a short list of five possible sites for a new high-security agricultural biodefense lab. One of them will be awarded the $450 million facility, slated to open in 2012, which will study deadly animal diseases such as hoof-and-mouth disease, Nipah virus, and African swine fever.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is funding the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), because it wants to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, New York. Plum Island is now the only place in the country that studies the deadliest animal pathogens, some of which also infect humans. Part of the new lab will operate at Biosafety Level-4, the highest level, where workers wear pressurized "spacesuits." The lab will likely employ around 300 scientists and support staff spread throughout 480 square meters of space. From 29 applicants, DHS last summer chose 17 sites to visit. The following five finalists are a mix of universities and research facilities: Flora Industrial Park (Madison County, Mississippi); Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas); Texas Research Park (San Antonio, Texas); Umstead Research Park (Granville County, North Carolina); and University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia).

The five "represent quite a spread in the scale and quality of infrastructure that is called for," says infectious disease researcher Frederick Murphy of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. For example, the North Carolina site, led by North Carolina State University, is near two major medical schools. Kansas State University has a top veterinary school, and San Antonio has a new medical school and a primate lab. Some observers suggest politics also played a role, noting that the five finalists are all in Republican states.

As for the losers, a lack of local support--part of the DHS criteria--may have killed some bids. In California, an anti-nuclear group campaigned against the proposal from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore. The University of Wisconsin's proposed site might have been hurt by concerns from county officials, who said it conflicted with their land-use plan, according to Irwin Goldman, associate dean for research in the university's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Another loser was Texas A & M University, where, last month, federal officials shut down all biodefense experiments because the school had failed to report two cases of exposures to biodefense pathogens Q fever and brucellosis.

DHS will now conduct an environmental impact statement to assess the lab's possible effects on the environment for each site and will use that information make a final selection in the fall of 2008.

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