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Opening This Spring in Kansas: A High-Tech Lab Researching Livestock Diseases

At the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, researchers will try to find cures for and ways to prevent highly contagious diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, affecting livestock and humans.

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Above image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, joined by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), is briefed by National Bio and Agri-Defense Facility Site Project Manger Tim Barr about the status of the facility being built on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas, on May 30, 2018. (USDA photo | Preston Keres)

Construction is wrapping up at a new biological research lab in Manhattan, Kansas, where researchers will study vaccines and treatments for highly contagious diseases that affect livestock and humans.

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, will be the first biosafety level 4 lab — the highest biosafety level — in the United States capable of housing large livestock.

WHY IT MATTERS

A product of USDA and the Department of Homeland Security, the lab will research diseases that, if they affect enough livestock, could harm agricultural industries.

Research is slated to begin in another one to two years, once the facility completes select agent registration and obtains all other necessary permits and clearances. Select agents are highly regulated pathogens and toxins that have the potential to cause harm to people, animals and the environment.

At the NBAF, scientists will study potential vaccines, treatments and other prevention measures for pathogens including those causing foot-and-mouth diseases, classical swine fever, African swine fever, Rift Valley fever and other highly contagious livestock diseases, according to the project’s website.

The goal is to protect the United States from diseases that have the potential to devastate livestock herds and infect people. 

A 2011 study by Iowa State University researchers found that a large-scale outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could cause nearly $130 billion in losses over a 10-year period in the meat industry. 

“NBAF is in a unique position to do diagnostics and training, as well as research and veterinary countermeasure development for emerging and zoonotic diseases in large livestock,” Alfonso Clavijo, the NBAF’s director, said in a statement.

The NBAF will replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on an island off the coast of New York, and take over much of its research.

In 2002, following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. soldiers found a list of potential bioweapons, including both human and animal diseases, to target the food supply. This sparked a presidential directive from George W. Bush in 2004 that mandated federal agencies improve the country’s biodefense plans and weapons. 

Plans for the NBAF came out of that presidential directive, and after a years-long site-selection competition, Kansas State University was selected in 2009 to host the lab. 

The Department of Homeland Security is overseeing construction of the NBAF, but oversight will officially transfer to USDA when construction is completed this spring. 

The front view of the completed NBAF in Manhattan, Kansas.
The front view of the completed NBAF in Manhattan, Kansas. (Courtesy | USDA)

The project has sparked debate in the Kansas legislature over fears that the pathogens could leak from the lab. 

All lab employees will adhere to the highest safety standards, said the lab’s deputy director Kenneth Burton in a written statement to Investigate Midwest. 

The NBAF is located adjacent to the Kansas State University campus but will be entirely operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a KSU spokesperson. 

Regulators cited Kansas State University in 2015 for repeatedly violating safety regulations at its existing biosafety level 3 research lab, the Biosecurity Research Institute, according to USA TODAY. The violations, as listed in a letter from federal regulators to the university, included failing to maintain written safety plans, ensure biosafety and containment of pathogens, provide and document training and implement the university’s security plan to prevent unauthorized access, theft or loss of pathogens. 

University officials have maintained that all of the violations were related to paperwork and that pathogens were always safely contained, posing no risk to researchers or the public. NBAF will not have any operational or administrative ties to Kansas State University, Burton said.

But the coronavirus lab leak theory — which suggests that the virus causing COVID-19 leaked from a biological research facility in Wuhan, China, where scientists study coronaviruses — has fueled public distrust and conspiracies surrounding biological research labs. 

The coronavirus lab leak theory has been largely ruled out by scientists after finding evidence that suggested the virus first emerged through contact between animals and humans at a seafood market in Wuhan.

Still lab accidents happen, and they’re not usually made public, according to USA TODAY. A bill in the Kansas legislature would change that.

Kansas Senate Bill 441, or the Biological Laboratory Accident Transparency Act, would require all biosafety level 3 and 4 labs in the state — including NBAF and Kansas State University’s Biosecurity Research Institute — to publicly disclose all lab accidents and near-misses. 

That includes incidents such as accidental needle pricks, spills, missing specimens or containment failures. 

David Manheim, a researcher and policy consultant for Guarding Against Pandemics, the political action committee behind the bill, said American biological research facilities are some of the best and safest in the world but greater transparency would improve safety and public trust.

“Lab accidents are a normal part of science,” Manheim said. “And even though the scientific research is really valuable, that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks that we should mitigate.”

Kansas State University officials submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill. In the testimony, Vice President for Research David Rosowsky and Assistant Vice President for Research Compliance Cheryl Doerr argued the bill is not clear enough, would create a burden on scientists and decrease public trust. 

“Publishing significant information related to laboratory accidents, without appropriate context and explanations of the risks and consequences, or lack thereof, will only serve to create a sense of danger that does not exist,” the testimony states. 

Biological research facilities that research highly contagious and dangerous diseases are required to report accidents to the USDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Federal Select Agent Program, which oversees research involving dangerous pathogens. But those accidents aren’t always made public, and when journalists request the information under public records laws, it often is heavily redacted, according to USA TODAY.

Some high-security biological research labs do publicly disclose accidents. For example, the Galveston National Laboratory in Galveston, Texas, maintains a spreadsheet of all lab accidents on its website. 

Burton, the deputy director at NBAF, said the facility would follow all applicable laws. 

“NBAF already considers it a high priority to openly communicate about its research and diagnostic mission while maintaining security measures for the facility,” he wrote.

Kansas SB 441 passed the Senate on Feb. 23 and is pending a committee hearing in the House. 

This story first appeared on Investigate Midwest, the website of The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, online newsroom. Madison McVan is an investigative reporter with Investigate Midwest.

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