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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
An animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in three New York courts this week in an...
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
- About Us
Planned Kansas Biodefense Laboratory Over the Rainbow?
14 February 2012 2:53 pm
Four years ago, scientists and lawmakers in Kansas rejoiced when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had chosen Manhattan, Kansas, as the site for a new $650 million federal lab to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the country's premier veterinary research facility off the coast of New York. Now, the project, called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), has been all but cancelled. The president's 2013 budget request includes no funding to build the facility, which so far exists in only architectural drawings and designs. The main reason for scrapping it, officials say, is the crash of the real estate market.
The U.S. government was planning to pay for the new facility by selling off Plum Island, which is federal property. "It's a really nice island with great beaches, a stone's throw from Long Island," says Tara O'Toole, the head of DHS's science and technology directorate. But after the housing crash, Plum Island no longer seemed so plum to potential buyers. And so officials came to the conclusion that selling it was no longer viable within the requisite time frame.
Conceived as biosafety level 4 lab for the study of dreaded animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease, NBAF has been mired in controversy from the beginning. When the U.S. government announced plans to build it several years ago, arguing that the Plum Island center was too old to stay functional, many environmentalists and scientists questioned whether the country really needed an NBAF. In 2008, after Kansas won a competition to host the facility, lawmakers in Texas, which was on the shortlist of candidate sites, accused the federal government of having ignored safety considerations in making its choice. Environmental groups in Kansas protested as well, arguing that bringing NBAF to their state would endanger the state's livestock industry through an accidental or deliberate release of infectious agents.
In 2009, after the Government Accountability Office released a report slamming DHS for having ignored the threat of tornadoes in the region, Congress directed the agency to ask the National Academies to assess the risks of building NBAF at the chosen site. Last year, Congress provided DHS with only $50 million—instead of the requested $150 million—to spend on the project, with the proviso that none of the money be spent on construction.
The 2013 budget request appears to have put NBAF out of its misery, although Congress may choose to reverse the decision. DHS, meanwhile, will go back to the drawing board to evaluate whether a facility like NBAF is a must-have or if there are possible alternatives. "What we are going to do beginning this spring is set up a task force in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and [the Department of] Health and Human Services that will take a comprehensive look at the current threat spectrum from terrorism to foreign invasive species to new zoonotic diseases," she says. "We are going to ask the question, do we need to build a BSL-4 lab to tackle these threats—yes or no? And is there an alternative to doing that?" If the answer is yes, O'Toole says, DHS could make the case to the White House for reinstating the plan in next year's budget.
Politicians in Kansas have signaled that they intend to fight the proposed cancellation. State Governor Sam Brownback and the state's congressional delegation issued a joint statement saying, "A needless effort to reassess the importance of protecting our nation's food supply is a waste of taxpayer dollars. This change in direction is unacceptable and will leave our country vulnerable."