Washington — The government’s study of the risks of moving foot-and-mouth disease research from an island off New York to Kansas failed to adequately track the potential spread of the virus and its economic effect if accidentally released, according to congressional investigators’ draft report.
The Government Accountability Office reported the Homeland Security Department did not adequately study different risks at sites that competed for a new lab to replace an aging one at Plum Island, N.Y. The GAO’s findings may boost efforts in Congress to slow the planned construction of the at least $500 million National Bio and Agro-Defense lab in Manhattan, Kan. Homeland officials wanted to break ground next year.
The department’s conclusions on dispersal risks were based on an inadequate model, and the Homeland Security Department’s economic analysis was based on that flawed model, the GAO reported.
“Drawing conclusions about relocating research with highly infectious exotic animal pathogens from questionable methodology could result in regrettable consequences,” according to the GAO draft.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in Seattle on Monday, said the decision to place the lab in Kansas was not political and was based on the advice of scientists.
“We intend to place the lab there and move forward with the lab being there,” she said.
Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were finalists for the lab, where other diseases also will be studied. The Homeland Security Department also considered building a new lab at Plum Island.
The department’s own experts raised concerns about the department’s analyses of the spread of the virus and economic effect before the department picked the Kansas site, the GAO reported.
The government’s Biodefense Knowledge Center, which conducted the economic analysis, reported several months before DHS recommended the Kansas site that a better aerosol dispersion model, better input data and more accident scenarios were needed, the GAO reported.
Research on foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle and swine, has been kept off the U.S. mainland for years for fear of infecting domestic cattle. The disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 1929.
The Homeland Security Department reported it will deal with the GAO’s findings in a 29-page response at a congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday, but department officials did not respond to the criticism Monday.
The findings were first reported by The Washington Post.
The House has withheld additional money until Homeland Security commissions an independent study, and the Senate is requiring another DHS study.
Tom Thornton, president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said the GAO report was “disappointing.” He said the research to be done at the lab is no different than the research on human pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“That is not on an island, where collaboration and infrastructure are limited,” Thornton said.
The GAO findings also throw into question whether the Kansas site is indeed the best location for the research.
A group of Texas businesses and bioscience experts sued the Homeland Security Department in Federal Claims Court over the department’s decision to build the lab in Kansas.
Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF USA, a Montana livestock group that has pushed for better study of the risks of moving the research inland, said the GAO’s findings should give other livestock raisers that have backed the lab cause for concern.
“The consequences of an inadvertent release would be devastating not only to the cattle producers,” he said, “but, due to concentration of our industry in the area where this facility would be relocated, the results of an inadvertent release could cause a shortage of meat for consumers.”
AP writers John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., and Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.