Major Problems Have Not Been Addressed
Posted by tmanney on January 31, 2012
Manhattan, KS 66502
Peggy Tsai, Program Officer
Board on Agriculture & Natural Resources
National Academies of Sciences
RE: NBAF, Public Comments
The goal of the National Academies of Sciences in Friday’s NBAF hearing was to judge whether the science underlying the biolabs’s design is “adequate” and “valid.” But several major issues brought up by the previous NRC committee will remain a problem no matter how many risk assessments are done: 1. the fact that the DHS SSRA gives incomplete thought to pathogens other than FMD, 2. this is by definition a large animal facility. 3. how to build and maintain a safe lab on a finite but unpredictable budget (“Value Engineering”).
- Avian flu H5N1 has proven hugely lethal particularly to birds raised for food, and penned in close quarters. So there is every reason to believe that it will be added to the select pathogens studied at NBAF. This particular strain of flu virus is also among the deadliest to humans.
To put this in context, the notorious 1918 flu pandemic (originating at Ft Riley) killed 40 million to 50 million people worldwide but was lethal to only about 2% of those infected. This one kills close to 60%. Until last month, scientists haven’t been overly concerned because H5N1 hasn’t been easily transmitted to or between humans.
Probably even at the time of the most recent Homeland Security design revisions, Dutch experiments hadn’t yet shown that a new variation of H5N1 can be readily transmitted through the air, from mammal to mammal. This Dutch experiment produced calls from the bio-security community for international oversight of potentially dangerous experiments.
But experience tells us that DHS would be unresponsive to international concerns. In 2002, the US admitted that against WHO convention, it holds viruses that are combinations of smallpox virus with animal poxviruses such as rabbitpox and cowpox. WHO quickly called for their immediate destruction; but the US has refused and now says that it wishes to increase experimentation with the hybrid viruses. The US justification was that its national security demanded more research on defenses against smallpox used as a biological weapon. Given this precedence, why should we believe DHS will be forthcoming to international concern, much less be responsive to any local oversight committee.
In spite of KSU’s insistence that layers of veterinary surveillance will catch exotic diseases, one has to doubt that local vets and certainly not students will have full information of what pathogens are being studied in NBAF, and how they are being genetically manipulated leading to totally different symptoms. Why would we expect them to know symptoms of diseases they are not told about?
Even then, the probability of misdiagnosis of unfamiliar diseases is high. Ft Detrick’s own medical staff diagnosed one of its researches as having flu when in reality it was tularemia.
So how do DHS plans “adequately and validly” protect the public, or the local infrastructure prepare, when the agencies running the lab have a history of secrecy?
- Proponents’ comparison the CDC in the middle of Atlanta with NBAF is clearly for non-scientific public consumption. In Atlanta, no researchers climb into the isolation cabinet with the infected steer. The sheer volume of ventilation air, feed and waste won’t change regardless of the number of risk assessments.
- Value Engineering In these years of lean budgets, we can assume that the lab’s design is very mission oriented…no frills. Yet in the last National Academies’ critique, an overarching concern was “Value Engineering. For example, given the destruction from F5 tornados on Joplin and Greensburg, the lab design is being revised from an F2 to an F3 tornado*. In response to the expense of additional concrete and rebar, will Homeland Security settle for i.e. software controls that are more vulnerable to something comparable to the Stuxnet computer worm which made Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spin out of control?
And just as critical as the construction phase, how can anyone in the realm of science project future congressional budget cuts to the lab’s upkeep? One of the Pirbright Laboratory releases is thought to have been caused by tree roots growing into a sewage line….deferred maintenance caused by a tighter budget. That concern goes double for subcontracting to management corporations. It is predictable, for example, that periods of quarantine following extended or especially hazardous work shifts would reduce profitability.
Each of these issues shows the futility an agency faces when it tries to engineer order on human unpredictability. The NRC is being asked to sign off on the “adequacy” and “validity” of hard science over “soft.” The cost of failure could be unimaginable. It would be ironic if Ft Riley/Manhattan hosts its second global flu pandemic.
*We are not as concerned about structural destruction of the lab from a tornado, as we are the more subtle effects of tremendous overpressure changes on HEPA filters, door seals and internal air balances.
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