Groundbreaking for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a $1.25 billion project by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), took place last Wednesday in Manhattan, Kansas. The new facility will focus biosafety level 3 agriculture (BSL-3Ag) research on dangerous livestock diseases such as African swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and will focus its BSL-4 research on such deadly pathogens as the Hendra and Nipah viruses, which are zoonotic pathogens that can be transmitted from animals to humans and for which no treatment is available.
R-CALF USA Vice President Mike Schultz who raises cattle in Brewster, Kansas, said the United States is making a terrible mistake by bringing the live FMD virus into Kansas.
“Congress and the President are ignoring the science that tells us this research facility is an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
When construction is complete, and for the first time since the 1929 FMD outbreak in California, the live FMD virus will once again be reintroduced to the United States’ mainland. Foot-and mouth disease is the most highly infectious animal disease presently known to cloven-footed animals such as cattle, swine, sheep and deer. Nearly 100 percent of exposed animals become infected. To accommodate the DHS’ request to bring the live FMD virus to the mainland, Congress first had to change U.S. law that restricted use of the live FMD virus to coastal islands. Since the 1950s, all U.S. research on FMD was conducted at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on an island off the northern tip of Long Island, New York.
In 2008 the independent, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study and concluded that the DHS lacks evidence to conclude that FMD research can be done safely on the U.S. mainland. The GAO raised numerous concerns regarding the inherent dangers of conducting research in close proximity to susceptible animals, such as the wildlife and cattle that surround the Manhattan site, particularly since FMD can be carried from farm-to-farm on the wind. The GAO pointed out that the DHS did not examine data from past releases of FMD – including the inadvertent release of FMD from Plum Island in 1978 that, according to reports, was carried harmlessly away over the Atlantic Ocean by prevailing winds. As a result, only the research cattle in pens at the facility had to be destroyed.
In 2010 the National Academy of Sciences (Academy) conducted its own independent study of the proposed Manhattan site and concluded that the Manhattan site would more likely than not result in an FMD outbreak within the 50-year life span of the NBAF. The Academy found that some of the risks associated with the Manhattan site were generic to any high-containment large animal facility, such as sites where the virus is inoculated in live cattle rather than being contained in biosafety cabinets. However, the Academy found that the risk of FMD infection, spread, and impact were largely related to the Manhattan site.
The Academy concluded that the probability of an infection resulting from a laboratory release of FMD from the NBAF site in Manhattan, Kansas approaches 70% over 50 years, with an economic impact to the U.S. cattle industry of $9-50 billion. Human error will be the most likely cause of an accidental pathogen release from Manhattan, according to the Academy.
Schultz said that human error was the cause of accidental releases of FMD that occurred both internally in and externally from the Plum Island facility. “If, or when, such accidents occur in Manhattan, the consequences will be far more severe than they were on the isolated island.”
There have been numerous, human-error-caused releases of deadly pathogens from BSL-3 laboratories both here and abroad over the past decade. In 2007 the FMD virus was accidently released from the Pirbright BSL-3 laboratory in Surrey, England, causing widespread outbreaks on surrounding farms.
Schultz said it is ironic that the same week that groundbreaking occurs for this dangerous NBAF laboratory, the Pentagon reports that the U.S. Army has mistakenly sent live anthrax spores to 24 laboratories in 11 states and two foreign countries.
On March 13, 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified human error – lapses in the appropriate use of personal protective equipment – as the cause of the accidental release of the deadly Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria from the Tulane National Primate Research Center, which is a BSL-3 research facility.
In June, 2014, the CDC announced that 75 people were being monitored or provided antibiotics because they may have been unintentionally exposed to live anthrax after safety practices were not followed at the Atlanta, Georgia, Roybal campus BSL-3 laboratory.
Schultz said these recent examples of human-caused breaches at high-containment facilities demonstrate that conducting FMD research at the Manhattan-based NBAF will likely result in an accidental release at some point.
“Equally alarming,” said Schultz, “Is that a study conducted this month by the GOA concludes that the federal government is not prepared to address a large-scale animal disease outbreak like an FMD outbreak.”
The GAO report found that federal agencies do not have enough veterinarians to respond to a major crisis, nor do they even know how many veterinarians they would need.
The report comes after the U.S. swine industry lost an estimated 8 million pigs to the recent porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) and while the U.S. poultry industry is destroying tens of millions of poultry resulting from the out-of-control outbreak of avian influenza. Latest reports indicate that about 30 million chickens and turkeys have been destroyed.
“If our cattle industry were to lose the same number of cows as the poultry industry has now lost to avian influenza, we would wipe out our entire 29.7 million head of beef cows here in the United States.
“The NBAF in Manhattan will irresponsibly increase the risk of yet another deadly disease outbreak and the federal government does not even have an effective strategy to protect our nation’s food security if or when that outbreak occurs,” Schultz concluded.