DHS Short List for National Laboratory Sites Raises Eyebrows

By Laura Spadanuta

The Department of Homeland Security has whittled down a short list of locations for a $451 million national laboratory that will research some of the world's most dangerous threats and select agents, according to the Associated Press (via Washington Post).

The Washington Post raises speculation regarding the inclusion of a site in Flora, Mississippi on that list.  Government experts ranked the Flora site lower than some sites that were passed over, such as Beltsville, Maryland, because Flora "is far from existing biodefense research programs and lacks ready access to workers already familiar with highly contagious animal and human diseases." 

The article points out that two prominent Mississippi lawmakers have a hand in overseeing DHS; they are: "Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees DHS, and Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees DHS money. Each said he was not aware of the department's deliberations about the lab location." 

However, the article points out that Rep. Thompson met with DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen twice about plans for the new lab.

The article quotes two individuals from competing labs that got passed over in favor of Flora and other sites as speculating that the pick was suspicious.  However, DHS was free to make the choice regardless of the recommendation of government experts.

The new lab will be a biosafety level 4 lab, which means it can work with life-threatening diseases that do not have vaccines or cures.  It will replace a lab on Plum Island, New York, and could study disease like foot-and-mouth and encephalitis.  Other sites being considered on the short list are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas.

Not every community is uniformly in favor of the idea of adding a lab that works with such dangerous agents.  The Houston Chronicle reports that several community members near the San Antonio site are concerned about water supply and which roads the lab's trucks will drive on.  Additionally, the paper reports that  "In June, Homeland Security released the draft statement calculating that economic losses in an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could surpass $4 billion if the lab were built near livestock herds in Kansas or Texas. That would be roughly $1 billion higher than the government's estimate of losses for a hypothetical outbreak from its existing lab on Plum Island."

A decision on the lab's location is expected later in 2008.  Oral and written comments will be gathered by DHS in two sessions on Thursday.


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