Decision on national biolab nears

Published 11 August 2008

Five states are vying to host to new, $450 million national biolab which will replace the aging Plum island facility; some lawmakers are questioning the selection process: an internal DHS review ranked the Mississippi site in Flora 14th out of 17 sites originally considered, yet it made it to the final five

Five states are vying for the DHS’s nearly $500 million lab that will study the world’s deadliest and most contagious animal diseases. The lab’s current location is Plum Island, an off-limits 840-acre government-owned island more than a mile off New York’s shores. DHS says the lab is outdated and needs to be replaced with a facility that can develop vaccines and antidotes to some of the world’s most exotic and dangerous foreign animal diseases. Such viruses, if released, could cause billions of dollars in damage to the economy and force the slaughter of untold numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs. The worst of those diseases is known as foot-and-mouth disease; the world’s last major outbreak occurred in Great Britain in 2001. It caused $16 billion in losses, and 7 million animals had to be killed and burned.

The five states angling for the lab — Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas — say it will create jobs, economic development and cachet. “It brings prestige in a very dynamic (biotech) industry,” says Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, which wants the lab in Mississippi.

Some lawmakers are questioning the selection process. An internal review conducted by a panel selected by DHS officials ranked the Mississippi site in Flora 14th out of 17 sites originally considered, according to documents obtained by AP. DHS undersecretary Jay Cohen overruled the city’s low score and placed it in the top five. “It appears that the undersecretary responsible for this program may have corrupted the site selection process by putting his thumb on the scale in favor of a particular site and its contractor, in violation of his own rules and over the objections of his own advisers,” said Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), whose House Energy and Commerce Committee held oversight hearings in May examining the risks of the new lab.

Under the department’s rules, however, it was free to disregard the recommendations of the government experts it appointed. DHS said it selected advisers who were experts and were screened carefully for any conflicts of interest, working through seven stages of recommendations over eighteen months. A department spokeswoman, Amy Kudwa, said the agency’s internal committee reviews “did not appropriately consider” certain important aspects, such as Mississippi’s plan to work closely with Battelle Memorial Institute, a DHS contractor that already manages some national labs elsewhere.

USA Today’s Mimi Hall writes that critics say the lab is better situated on the island, where highly contagious viruses can’t be easily spread. “The risk-reward ratio is something that needs to be discussed in more detail,” says Republican congressional candidate B. J. Lawson of North Carolina. “I’d be happier if it stayed offshore.” Plum Island has captured the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers over the years. Author Nelson DeMille set his 1997 thriller of the same name on Plum Island; Clarice Starling tried to entice Hannibal Lecter with the promise of annual trips to the island in the 1991 horror film Silence of the Lambs. Because it would cost more than $750 million to build a new, more secure lab on Plum Island, DHS two years ago began looking for less-expensive alternatives. It now has whittled its list down to five sites: Athens, Georgia; Manhattan, Kansas; Flora, Mississippi; San Antonio, Texas; and Butner, North Carolina. Elected leaders in all five states consider the lab a boon. It brings the promise of new construction, jobs, ties to research centers and more. Last month, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, called securing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) her state’s “top bioscience priority.”

DHS did not keep its plans secret from community leaders — officials from Georgia to Kansas have been wooing the lab for more than a year. Plum Island is still in the running as well, but Jamie Johnson of DHS says a new lab could be built on the mainland for about $500 million — and, he says, it would be cheaper to run a mainland lab year to year and easier to find top-notch workers who wouldn’t have to commute by boat.

DHS says it can build a safe, secure lab. “We can never say it’s never going to happen,” Johnson says. “But we can build a safe facility.”