NRC faults DHS for underestimated risk of pathogen escape

A panel from the National Research Council has determined that the Department of Homeland Security underestimated the risk that human error could let pathogens escape from the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

Congress asked the NRC panel to evaluate how accurately Homeland Security assessed the risk in reports in 2010 and earlier this year for the proposed $1 billion lab. The laboratory would be designed to study lethal animal-borne diseases, Reuters reports.

Another panel from the NRC is studying alternatives to constructing the $1.14 billion laboratory. Results are anticipated by the end of June.

Scientists at the proposed NBAF would study animal diseases introduced by terrorism or accidentally that could sicken humans and livestock. The facility would replace the aging Long Island, New York-based Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Local residents in Manhattan, Kansas, raised concerns over the safety of the facility.

Disease studied at the lab would include the Nepha and Hendra viruses, swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease and the Japanese encephalitis virus. There have been no foot-and-mouth outbreaks in the United States since 1929, according to Reuters.

While the DHS estimated that there is only a one in 46,000 chance annually for a pathogen being released through 142 possible events, the panel faulted the low probability predicted of pathogen release from human error. The panel also faulted the department for exaggerating the likelihood of damage from a major tornado or earthquake.