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Report questions choice of Kansas site for lab

WASHINGTON (AP)--The government's study of the risks of moving foot-and-mouth disease research from an island off New York to Kansas failed to adequately track the potential spread of the virus and its economic impact if accidentally released, congressional investigators said in a draft report.

The Government Accountability Office said the Homeland Security Department did not adequately study different risks at sites that competed for a new lab to replace an aging one at Plum Island, N.Y. The GAO's findings may boost efforts in Congress to slow the planned construction of the at least $500 million National Bio and Agro-Defense lab in Manhattan, Kan. The department hoped to break ground next year.

The department's conclusions on dispersal risks were based on an inadequate model and its economic analysis was based on that flawed model, the GAO said in its draft report.

"Drawing conclusions about relocating research with highly infectious exotic animal pathogens from questionable methodology could result in regrettable consequences,'' the GAO said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in Seattle on July 27, said the decision to place the lab in Kansas was not political and was based on the advice of scientists.

"We intend to place the lab there and move forward with the lab being there,'' she said.

Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were finalists for the lab, where other diseases also will be studied. The Homeland Security Department also considered building a new lab at Plum Island.

The department's own experts raised concerns about the department's analyses of the spread of the virus and economic impact before the department picked the Kansas site, the GAO said.

The government's Biodefense Knowledge Center, which conducted the economic analysis, said several months before DHS recommended the Kansas site that a better aerosol dispersion model, better input data and more accident scenarios were needed, the GAO said.

Research on foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle and swine, has been kept off the U.S. mainland for years for fear of infecting domestic cattle. The disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 1929.

The Homeland Security Department said it will address the GAO's findings in a 29-page response at a congressional hearing scheduled for July 30, but it did not address the criticism July 27.

The findings were first reported by The Washington Post.

The House has withheld additional funding until Homeland Security commissions an independent study, and the Senate is requiring another DHS study. The different demands will be worked out when a conference committee negotiates the department's funding bill.

Tom Thornton, president of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said the GAO report was "disappointing.'' He said the research to be done at the lab is no different than the research on human pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"That is not on an island, where collaboration and infrastructure are limited,'' Thornton said.

The GAO findings also throw into question whether the Kansas site is indeed the best location for the research.

A group of Texas businesses and bioscience experts has sued the Homeland Security Department in Federal Claims Court over its decision to locate the lab in Kansas.

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