Department of Homeland Security revises Kansas biosafety lab assessment

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has revised an assessment of the proposed high-level animal biosafety lab in Kansas, dramatically lowering the assessed likelihood that Foot and Mouth Disease would escape.

In a 923 page risk assessment released on Friday, the DHS estimated that the risk that FMD would escape from the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility during the facility’s 50 year lifespan was less than 0.11 percent. When excluding catastrophic events such as tornadoes and earthquakes, the risk drops below 0.008 percent, Nature reports.

The previous risk assessment in 2010 estimated the risk of such an event was 70 percent. The National Academies concluded that the 2010 assessment had multiple major shortcomings. The academies will evaluate the new risk assessment later this spring.

“(The new risk assessment) reaffirms that we can build a safe and secure facility to meet this important mission,” Tara O’Toole, the DHS under secretary for science and technology, said, according to Nature.

Bill Dorsett, a member of the group No NBAF in Kansas, questioned the validity of the new assessment.

“There’s no way that an analysis can get it down that precisely,” Dorsett said, according to Nature. “Because a big portion of the risk has to do with people and people’s behavior. That starts with congressional funding for the lab — and continued congressional funding for its maintenance.  We’re trying to predict what Congress will do ten years down the line.”

Congress provided the lab with $50 million in funding in 2012 on the condition of the new risk assessment and its appraisal by the National Academies. President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal did not request any money for the construction of the lab. The proposal also impels the National Academies to evaluate whether present disease threats justify the potential $1 billion costs of the facility.

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