DHS downgrades NBAF risk

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The Homeland Security Department has significantly revised downward its assessment on the likelihood of foot and mouth disease virus escaping from the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility planned for construction in Manhattan, Kan.

In the updated risk assessment (executive summary (.pdf)) DHS says over NBAF's 50-year projected life, the likelihood of an accidental release of viable foot and mouth disease resulting in an outbreak is less than .11 percent. That number allows for the possibility of catastrophic events such as tornados and earthquakes, DHS says; without taking into account catastrophic events, the risk assessment goes down to less than .008 percent.

Those numbers are significantly lower than a 2010 DHS risk assessment that led a National Research Council panel to conclude that there existed a nearly 70 percent chance of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease over NBAF's 50-year life span.

That earlier assessment, DHS says, was based on facility design, operational plans and response practices that were only 15 percent complete. The current risk assessment, DHS adds, is founded on a 65 percent completion rate and incorporates recommendations from the first risk assessment for additional mitigation measures such as carcass disposal systems, fully redundant dual high-efficiency particulate air exhausted systems and tornado hardening.

The possibility of a tornado destroying NBAF has figured greatly in criticism of the facility's location, since Manhattan is located in an area of the United States colloquially known as Tornado Alley. A tornado later rated level 4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale with winds between 166 and 200 miles per hour touched down in Manhattan in June 2008.

However, the DHS risk assessment says the greatest risk to an unintentional pathogen release is human error, and 99 percent of the catastrophic disaster risk comes from earthquakes. The most current NBAF design, DHS says, includes hardening maintaining laboratory containment in winds up to 228 miles per hour.

NBAF is envisioned as a Biosafety Level 4 (the most dangerous possible) laboratory for the study of animal diseases and a replacement for the existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is located off of Long Island, N.Y. The Plum Island center, a biosafety level 3 facility, is nearing the end of its usefulness. The department selected Manhattan in December 2008 as the NBAF site; however, the DHS congressional fiscal 2013 budget justification states that DHS this year intends "to conduct a comprehensive assessment of whether and for what purpose a BSL 4 facility should be stood up" and includes no proposed appropriations for NBAF in the coming fiscal year.

For more:
- download the updated NBAF site-specific risk assessment executive summary (.pdf)
- download the updated NBA SSRA volume 1, volume 2 and appendices (large .pdf)
- go to the DHS NBAF webpage
- read a DHS press release on the updated NBAF SSRA

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