Report: Updated DHS risk assessment of Kansas lab still “technically inadequate”

but despite improvements, the updated assessment underestimates the risk of an accidental pathogen release and inadequately characterizes the uncertainties in those risks.  Moreover, the committee found that the updated probabilities of releases are based on overly optimistic and unsupported estimates of human-error rates; low estimates of infectious material available for release; and inappropriate treatment of dependencies, uncertainties, and sensitivities in calculating release probabilities.  For instance, the 2010 assessment concludes that human error would be the most likely cause of release, and the previous Research Council report agrees.

The updated assessment, however, concludes that natural hazards, specifically earthquakes and tornadoes, would be twenty times more likely to cause a pathogen release than operational activities at the facility.  The committee questioned whether natural hazards posed the greatest risk for accidental release of FMD and believed the updated assessment overestimated the release probabilities due to both kinds of natural disasters versus other pathways.

The release notes that in addition, the low estimates of risk found throughout the updated assessment are not in agreement with most modern, complex industrial systems, and in many instances the committee could not verify results because methods and data were unevenly or poorly presented.  The updated assessment also contains inconsistent information, which made it difficult to determine the degree to which risks were underestimated.

A risk assessment of this nature carries significant complexities, yet the practice of completing such assessments is mature enough that the committee’s expectations are attainable,” said Gregory Baecher, chair of the committee and Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.  “Because a pathogen release from the NBAF could have devastating agricultural, economic, and public health consequences, a risk assessment that reaches inappropriate conclusions could have substantial repercussions.”

The committee said the updated assessment addresses many of the issues outlined in the congressional mandate.  It still does not, however, adequately include overall risks associated with the most dangerous pathogens. Additionally, assumptions about surveillance, detection, response, and mitigation strategies were not adequately comprehensive or science-based.

The latest design plans for the NBAF appear to be sound, the committee said.  It reviewed the design documents to understand the assumptions about the release probabilities for the risk assessment and to verify that design concerns raised in the previous Research Council report were addressed.  The committee noted that inadequacies in the updated assessment do not imply inadequacies in the facility’s design.  It was beyond the committee’s task to formally review or pass judgment on the actual engineering or safety of the facility.

The study was sponsored by DHS.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.

— Read more in Evaluation of the Updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas