After almost three years of waiting, we now know the preferred location of the much sought after federal biotech prize the NBAF. On Friday the Department of Homeland Security confirmed what the Associated Press leaked on Wednesday. Manhattan, Kansas was chosen as the “Preferred Alternative” to host the world’s largest BSL4 Agricultural facility. With the facility comes the claims of an economic boom with the influx of construction jobs, state and federal taxes, federal grants and last but not least research prestige. The official announcement was made as a delegation of Kansas Politicos waltzed one by one toward the mic to express their glee on the “historic opportunity“. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius said “Very few people on their Christmas list had NBAF in their Santa Clause letter”, “I did,” she said “What do you want for Christmas”? “NBAF”.
Only hours before Sebelius’ Christmas wish was granted, a new report released from a congressionally ordered bi-partisan commission went virtually unnoticed. The report “World at Risk“, The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism offered more somber warnings concerning the U.S. proliferation of bio-containment facilities. In part, “The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon. The Commission believes that the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospect of a bioterror attack.”. In essence the report”s message takes aim at the current rapid proliferation of BSL3 and BSL4 bio-containment facilities, potential dangers related to the U.S. bio-defense expansion and the methodology used by the Bush Administration’s, U.S. bio-defense complex which encompasses the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) plans and it’s rational for the NBAF.
The commission examined the likely hood a scientist could “cross the line” and become a “turn-coat” for a terrorist organization or become another threat like “ Bruce Ivins”. In August of this year that new type of threat presented itself. Remember Aafia Siddique, she is a very well (U.S.) educated member of al-Qaeda.” She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and came to American in 1990 by all accounts she was a productive citizen. She attended and graduated from MIT and she is also a Brandeis alumna. When she was arrested in Afghanistan, Siddique allegedly had in her possession maps of New York, a list of potential targets that included the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the subway system and the animal disease center on Plum Island, detailed chemical, biological and radiological weapon information that has previously been seen only in a handful of terrorist cases. DHS maintains the NBAF will not be a potential terrorist target.
(About the video – ABC news coverage of the arrest and capture of Aafia Siddique.)
Now, consider this excerpt from a recent American Scientific piece by By John Dudley Miller “Postal Anthrax Aftermath: Has Biodefense Spending Made Us Safer“?
In an opinion that echoes those of several public health scientists, Keith Rhodes, the Government Accountability Office’s chief technologist, told a congressional hearing in October 2007 that “we are at greater risk today” than before of an infectious disease epidemic because of the great increase in bio laboratories and the absence of oversight they receive. In the past six years, says Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright, “the Bush administration has driven a 20- to 30-fold increase in the number of institutions and individuals with access to live, virulent bio-weapons agents,” to about 400 institutions and 15,000 people. Every one of them, he claims, “is a potential source of an attack like the 2001 attack.” Even before the expansion, some 100 scientists had access to the anthrax strain Ivins managed. Moreover, huge growth “multiplies the chance of an accidental release,” argues Hillel Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
On May 22,2008, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Hearing entitled Germs,Viruses and Secrets: “Governments plans to move Exotic Disease Research to the Mainland United States”, took a look specifically at the NBAF and whether on not Foot and Mouth Disease could be studied safely on the mainland. Chairman John Dingell’s opening statement has a foreboding message, ”I would note that history is littered with the smoking wreckage of the impregnable, the indestructible, and the unsinkable”. Dingell continued:
Given the potentially catastrophic effects that a release of foot-and-mouth could have on the livestock industry and the national economy, it seems to me that DHS has the burden of showing us why this is necessary and in the public interest.
In that regard, I must regrettably point out that DHS has not been forthcoming in providing records and information requested by the Committee. In several instances, the Committee has only been provided copies of certain key records after Committee staff discovered their existence, despite the fact that we specifically requested all such records. At this late date, there are still relevant documents outstanding, including the statement of work for the environmental impact statement for Plum Island and the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). This simply is not acceptable.
Kansas Senator’s Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback each said Thursday that they expect the funding to be available because the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is a national security priority. But, N.C.’s Rep. David Price who is the Chair for the Subcommittee on Homeland Security, stated repeatedly during his bid for re-election that until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is satisfied that the study of FMD can be done safely, the NBAF project will not receive further funding. Price’s legislation states that DHS has not conducted nor commissioned a study that determined whether or not FMD could be studied on the mainland safely and that the study DHS was relying on is from a 2002 USDA study that ask the wrong question.
I requested copies of the legislation from Price’s office and his Chief of Staff, Jean-Louise Beard promptly provided me with the legislation. Congressman Price first put the language in the House version of the FY09 Homeland Security bill (HR 6947) as well as the report accompanying the bill. The language was then included in the final version of the FY09 Homeland Security bill, which was part of a Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted into law in September. That bill number is HR 2638, and it is now Public Law 110-329. The segments are marked with arrows and brackets so the pertainent language is easy to find.
Should the NBAF project go forward at all? Many scientists and experts say no, again consider the words of Richard Ebright this time in an recent interview with the The Scienstist.
Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, summarized his response to the Kansas decision in an email to The Scientist as follows:
“###Unsafe. (Foot-and-mouth-disease virus cannot safely be handled at a mainland location.)
###Unnecessary. (No scientific rationale. No scientific purpose. No scientific necessity.)
###A DHSplanningfailure on par with Katrina.
###Should be terminated by the Obama Administration or the new Congress.”
If this project goes forward, ALL risk assessments must be made on the final building designs etc. and until the GAO is satisfied that FMD can be studied on the mainland with no risk to surrounding farms, livestock and the Nation’s economy we should continue to question and fight the project. I personally don’t want to see the same Kansas politicos waltzing back to the mic only this time explaining what happened. Moreover, since Sen. Pat Roberts was a participate in the Government FMD simulation “Crimson Sky” , he better than anyone knows what a release of FMD would mean to Kansas and the U.S. The exercise was conducted in 2002, which data modeling showed, that a FMD exposure on five farms led to the virus spreading to 35 states in 10 days. “Crimson Sky” ended with fictional riots in the streets after the simulation’s National Guardsmen were ordered to kill tens of millions of farm animals, so many that troops ran out of bullets. In the exercise, the government said it would have been forced to dig a ditch in Kansas 25 miles long to bury carcasses. In the simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages. Let’s all hope that Kansas gets it right, otherwise they will be digging the proverbal ditch.
*An aside note concerning the chair of the bi-partisan commission: Ex-Florida Senator Bob Graham has a unique perspective on Homeland Security. On the morning of September 11, Senator Graham and Rep. Porter Goss hosted a breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill, their guest that morning was none other than Pakistan’s Chief Spy General Mahmoud Ahmad, the alleged “money-man” behind the 9-11 hijackers. At that time Senator Bob Graham and Rep. Porter Goss, were the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence committees.