High-tech laboratory researching livestock diseases

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Photo credit above: USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue, accompanied by Senator Pat Roberts (R-K) and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), is shown by National Agricultural and Biological Defense Facility Project Manager Tim Barr on the state of the facility being built on the campus of the National Agricultural and Biological Defense Facility Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on May 30, 2018 (USDA photo | Preston Keres)

Construction is being completed at a new biological research laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas, where researchers will study vaccines and treatments for highly contagious diseases affecting livestock and humans.

The National Agricultural and Biodefense Facility, or NBAF, will be the first biosafety level 4 laboratory – the highest level of biosafety – in the United States capable of housing large livestock.

why does it matter

It is a product of the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security, and the lab will research diseases that, if they affect enough livestock, could harm agricultural industries.

The search is scheduled to begin in another 1-2 years, once the facility has completed the registration of the selected agent and obtained all necessary permits and other approvals. The agents selected are highly regulated pathogens and toxins likely to cause harm to humans, animals and the environment.

At the NBAF, scientists will study potential vaccines, treatments and other prevention measures for pathogens including those that cause foot-and-mouth disease, classic 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 could destroy livestock and infect people.

A 2011 study by Iowa State University researchers found that widespread foot-and-mouth disease could cause an estimated $130 billion in losses over 10 years to the meat industry.

“The NBAF is uniquely positioned to carry out diagnostics and training, as well as research and development of veterinary countermeasures for emerging and zoonotic diseases in large livestock,” NBAF Director Alfonso Clavigo said in a statement.

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

In 2002, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, US soldiers found a list of potential biological weapons, including human and animal diseases, to target the food supply. This prompted a presidential directive from George W. Bush in 2004 that tasked federal agencies with improving the country’s biodefense and weapons plans.

The NBAF’s plans came from this presidential directive, and after many years of competition in site selection, Kansas State University was chosen in 2009 to host the lab.

The NBAF construction is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, but the oversight will officially pass to the USDA when construction is complete this spring.

Front view of the completed NBAF in Manhattan, Kansas. (courtesy | USDA)

The project sparked controversy in the Kansas legislature over concerns that pathogens could escape from the lab.

Laboratory deputy director Kenneth Burton said in a written statement to the Midwest investigation that all laboratory personnel will adhere to the highest safety standards.

NBAF is located near the Kansas State University campus but will be fully operated by the US Department of Agriculture, according to a KSU spokesperson.

Regulators cited Kansas State University in 2015 for repeatedly violating safety rules at its current Biosafety Level 3 research laboratory, the Biosecurity Research Institute, according to USA TODAY. Violations, as noted in a letter from federal regulators to the university, included failure to maintain written safety plans, ensure biosafety and pathogen containment, provide and document training and implement the university’s security plan to prevent unauthorized access, theft, or loss of pathogens. .

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

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

Scientists have largely ruled out the leakage theory in a coronavirus lab after finding evidence that the virus first emerged through contact between animals and humans at a seafood market in Wuhan.

There are still lab accidents that happen, and they aren’t usually publicized, according to USA TODAY. A bill in the Kansas legislature would change that.

The Kansas Senate Act, or Biological Laboratory Incident Transparency Act, would require all biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories in the state—including the NBAF and the Kansas State University Biosecurity Research Institute—to publicly disclose all lab accidents and near misses.

This includes accidents such as accidental needle pricks, spills, lost specimens, or containment failures.

US biological research facilities are among the best and safest in the world, but increased transparency will improve safety and public confidence, said David Mannheim, a researcher and policy advisor to the Committee on Epidemic Protection, the political action committee behind the bill.

“Lab accidents are a normal part of science,” Mannheim said. “And while the scientific research is really helpful, that doesn’t mean there are no risks we should mitigate.”

Kansas State University officials provided written testimonies opposing the bill. In the testimony, Vice President for Research David Rosofsky and Assistant Vice President for Research Compliance Sheryl Doerr said the bill was not clear enough, and would create a burden for scientists and reduce public trust.

The certification states that “publishing important information related to laboratory accidents, without appropriate context and explanations of risks and consequences, or lack thereof, will only create a sense of danger that does not exist.”

Biological research facilities looking for highly contagious and dangerous diseases are required to report incidents to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Federal Identification Agent Program, which oversees research involving dangerous pathogens. But these incidents are not always made public, and when journalists request information under public records laws, it is often heavily redacted, according to USA TODAY.

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

Burton, NBAF’s deputy director, said the facility will follow all applicable laws.

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

The Kansas Senate passed SB 441 on February 23 and is awaiting a House committee hearing.

This story first appeared on Investigate Midwest, the website of The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, an online non-profit organization.. Madison McFan is an investigative reporter for Midwest Investigation.

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