National Research Council calls for more comprehensive biolab risk assessment

In a letter report, the National Research Council has advised the United States Army to prepare a more comprehensive risk assessment than originally proposed for a biodefense laboratory to be built at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland.

The lab is called the Medical Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Facility. The facility will work on drugs and new vaccines against diseases like Ebola, anthrax, Marburg fever, plague and tularemia, CIDRAP News reports.

The Army asked the NRC to review its plan for the preparation of a site-specific risk assessment after the NRC critiqued the Army’s health-hazard assessment for high containment labs planned by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

After the request for guidance, the NRC formed a committee to review the Army’s proposed approach for risk assessment preparation. The panel decided that the information presented by the Army was not comprehensive enough to constitute a formal work plan for the assessment.

"In the absence of a formal work plan and preliminary facility designs, it was difficult to assess whether the Army contractor's approach will result in a comprehensive and credible SSRA," the report said, according to CIDRAP News. "Therefore, the committee has approached its task by describing significant critical elements that are important for executing a successful SSRA."

The NRC panel said that the types of organisms the Army said it would study at the facility did not include over 20 other agents that could be tested in the future. The NRC panel also said that since the lab is intended to serve outside organizations, activities that are not envisioned could take place leading to an alteration in risk.

In addition, the panel recommended that the Army contractor prepare probabilistic safety analyses for various events like natural disasters, aircraft crashes, sabotage and loss of key utilities that could lead to facility failures, CIDRAP News reports.