The United States needs the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, but given the need to cut government spending, should the focus be on less-comprehensive and less-costly options? That’s the focus of a report that the National Academies of Science titled “Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs For Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options.”

The Department of Homeland Security commissioned the report, which outlines potential advantages and disadvantages of the following three options:

  • Constructing the NBAF as currently designed (in Manhattan, Kan.).
  • Constructing an NBAF, but of a reduced size and scope.
  • Maintaining the Plum Island Facility and leveraging large-animal biosafety level-4 capacity of other partners.

Cost is a persistent stumbling block for NBAF as currently planned (in addition to biosecurity concerns), which has climbed to an estimated $1.14 billion. Scaling back the NBAF and farming some of the research out to other laboratories could save a bit of that, but the report outlines several drawbacks.

There are several animal laboratories around the country rated for “biosafety level 3 or 4.” These are the highest security levels against escape of pathogens, and the NBAF’s scientific goals require level-4 facilities capable of handling large animals. Building a smaller NBAF that could tap into existing facilities could be more efficient than concentrating the entire program at the Manhattan facility. However, the study found that of the level-3 laboratories, an insufficient number are equipped to conduct research on large animals such as cattle and swine, particularly foot-and-mouth disease. The current level-3 facility at Plum Island, N.Y., is dated and increasingly costly to run. While there are several level-4 laboratories in the United States, they are not able to handle large animals.

As for the Plum Island facility, the report says it does not meet current standards for high-containment laboratories and lacks biosafety level-4 facilities. Keeping that facility in operation would incur additional costs and could mean relying on international partners for research requiring level-4 biosecurity. The catch to that is access to other countries’ large-animal biosafety level-4 capabilities could be limited in times of critical need.

Overall, the committee stressed the need for a national role in coordinating the U.S. disease surveillance and response system. A central federal laboratory or laboratories would be the cornerstone of this integrated system, and there is a strong need to build a large-animal biosafety level-4 laboratory in the United States.

Regarding the three options, the committee concluded that the current NBAF proposal includes all components of the ideal laboratory infrastructure in a single location and has been designed to meet the current and anticipated future needs, but the proposed facility also has some drawbacks.

A scaled-back NBAF, working in partnership with a network of other laboratories, could effectively protect the United States from foreign animal and zoonotic diseases, reduce redundancies and potentially decrease costs. Determining the amount of cost savings from this option requires additional study.

Upgrading the Plum Island facility versus building the new NBAF appears to be the least viable of the three options. However, the authors note because FMD research remains critical for the U.S. animal health system, “it will be essential to continue to support the Plum Island facility until an alternative facility is authorized, constructed, commissioned and approved for work on FMD virus.”

A summary and full draft report is available from the National Academies of Science at http://tinyurl.com/dyx93v8.