What Could Go Wrong?

The government is putting a pathogen-research lab in Tornado Alley.

Lightning strikes on June 4, 2010 in Polo, Missouri.
It’s absolutely mind-boggling that Homeland Security has decided to move the lab smack in the middle of Tornado Alley. Above, lightning strikes on June 4, 2010, in Polo, Missouri.

Photo by Shane Kirk/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

The United States eradicated foot-and-mouth disease from its borders in 1929. The virus, deadly to livestock, persists in more than 100 countries, though, and travels with ease. It is able to hitchhike on shoes, clothes, and tires. Airborne, it can travel almost 40 miles overland and almost 190 over open ocean. When the United Kingdom experienced a foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, more than 6 million animals had to be slaughtered to contain the virus’ spread. The economic fallout was devastating, and some farmers committed suicide (though of course it is difficult to establish cause and effect with suicide).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture established an animal disease research center on Plum Island, New York, in 1954, for the express purpose of studying foot-and-mouth and other deadly animal diseases. Today, in addition to foot-and-mouth, the center studies viruses like African swine fever, which, if inadvertently released, could devastate the U.S. livestock industry. It also looks at other zoonotic pathogens—microbes that can jump from animals to people—that could potentially cause human outbreaks. The research has direct implications for U.S. defense against agro-terrorism, which is the malicious disruption of food supply systems or agriculture. It was with biological threats in mind that the Department of Homeland Security took over the lab in 2002.

There was a reason the federal government placed the 840-acre lab where it did: The isolated island sits off of the far eastern end of New York state’s Long Island, where the prevailing winds blow toward the ocean. If the foot-and-mouth virus—or any other airborne danger—escaped from the lab, the air currents would likely carry it beyond where it could cause harm. An out-of-the-way location makes sense because no lab is risk free. In 2007, for instance, the foot-and-mouth virus escaped from Great Britain’s Pirbright Institute, one of the world’s leading laboratories studying animal disease, and set off an outbreak at a nearby farm.

So it is absolutely mind-boggling that Homeland Security has decided to move the lab, to be known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, to the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas, smack in the middle of cattle country and Tornado Alley. Builders recently broke ground on the brand-new $1.25 billion dollar facility, which is set to be fully operational in 2022. It will include a biosafety level 4 lab, meaning one designed to handle deadly and exotic pathogens for which no vaccines or treatments exist. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the lab’s move to Kansas. Ranchers and farmers in the area are understandably worried while local officials are eager for the jobs and investments the lab will bring.

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a risk assessment of Homeland Security’s first proposal for the Kansas lab and found a 70 percent probability that a foot-and-mouth virus release resulting in an outbreak would occur over the facility’s 50-year life span. In 2012, the National Research Council evaluated Homeland Security’s revised proposal and found considerable improvements in lab construction design that lowered the 50-year risk to below 1 percent, but this extremely low probability of accidental viral release was based on Homeland Security’s unsupported, overly optimistic estimates of human error rates. The committee that authored the 2012 National Academy of Sciences report could not verify Homeland Security’s risk estimates because the data and methods were poorly and unevenly presented. In addition, the academy found that Homeland Security had not adequately addressed plans for lab personnel training, sufficiently considered input from local stakeholders, or made the kind of long-term funding commitment needed to maintain high-quality operations. The 2012 evaluation concluded that Homeland Security’s lab proposal was “technically inadequate in critical aspects.”

Even the best laboratories make mistakes: In July 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed mishaps involving exposure of personnel to anthrax and the transfer of a flu strain. Just this month, U.S. defense officials revealed that an Army lab mistakenly sent live samples of anthrax to at least 52 labs in 18 states and three countries. Meanwhile, a new USA Today investigation into high-containment laboratories (those at biosafety levels 3 and 4) found hundreds of incidents in recent years that could have put public health at risk. There is virtually no oversight of the labs that the newspaper looked into—which are operated by private companies, universities, and government agencies—and state health departments typically do not know where they are or what they do, even though the state health departments would be responsible for the response in the event of a lab breach. I first wrote about this problem more than a decade ago, and sadly, not much has changed. 

It appears to be too late to stop construction of the Kansas laboratory, but there may yet be ways to lessen the danger. At the very least, there should be state and federal oversight of high-containment laboratory activities, which should include responsibility for tracking safety violations, errors, and infections acquired by lab staff doing their jobs. And the new lab had better be strong enough to withstand a direct hit by a major tornado.

In the meantime, all we can do is hope that no human error, lab breach, or individual bent on doing harm causes a deadly animal disease to leak into the surrounding countryside. If that happens, it could decimate the U.S. livestock industry, wreaking economic havoc and potentially also putting human health at risk. The avian influenza epidemic sweeping through the Midwest is bad enough, wiping out chicken flocks and disrupting the U.S. food supply. If something similar were to happen to cattle due to a foot-and-mouth leak from the Kansas lab, we would have no one to blame but ourselves.

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.