By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - The United States should consider scaling down ambitious plans for a $1 billion laboratory in Kansas to study potentially deadly animal diseases, the National Research Council said on Friday in a key report to help the government decide how to proceed.
Construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, has been stalled by concerns that deadly animal diseases could escape and devastate agriculture. Some have called the facility a costly boondoggle.
The Department of Homeland Security asked the research council - which is part of the National Academy of Sciences - to study three options for the facility. They were to proceed with the Kansas plant, scale it back, or retain the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, New York.
The advisory panel did not recommend any of the three options but wrote favorably of scaling back the Kansas plant. It said a new facility of some kind is "imperative" to the nation.
Putting all the functions in the Kansas lab is potentially "a duplication of resources," the panel said in the 134-page report issued on Friday.
"A central laboratory would be a key part of an integrated national system but it would only be one component."
The facility in Kansas would replace Plum Island, which the Department of Homeland Security says no longer meets U.S. research requirements to develop treatments for disease outbreaks.
Plum Island has so-called "Level 3" labs - designed to study animal-borne diseases. But it does not have space for more secure "Level 4" labs, where large animal diseases that can spread to humans are studied, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The advisory panel said the Kansas facility would avoid the need to move specimens and other materials from place to place.
But there are drawbacks to the Kansas proposal, including steadily rising estimated costs, the panel said. A smaller building would cut construction and maintenance costs while still housing a lab of the more secure type that Plumb Island cannot accommodate, the panel said.
A leading supporter of the Kansas facility called the panel report mostly a victory because it backs a more secure lab.
"They are not suggesting farming out the core mission, and that makes up the bulk of the facility," said Ron Trewyn, vice president of research at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
An opponent of the plant, retired Kansas State physics and biology professor Tom Manney, said the top security lab needs to be offshore and not in the nation's agricultural heartland for safety reasons.
Plans for the facility have raised concerns about security because it would be in the middle of so-called "Tornado Alley," which critics say exposes it to damage and possible escape of pathogens. The government has proposed reinforcing the building but that has raised the estimated price tag to $1 billion.
Some members of Congress have proposed slashing funding for the program at a time when the U.S. government is running enormous budget deficits.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham)