- DTN Headline News
NBAF Readies for Global Science Mission
By Chris Clayton
Wednesday, May 24, 2023 5:10AM CDT

MANHATTAN, Kan. (DTN) -- A nearly two-decade strategy to better protect the country from the risks of dangerous foreign-animal diseases will come to fruition on Wednesday. USDA and Kansas officials will formally hold the ribbon-cutting for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility adjacent to the Kansas State University campus.

Dubbed NBAF, the new state-of-the-art animal-disease laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas, will replace the 68-year-old Animal Defense Center located on Plum Island, New York, a small island just off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The $1.25 billion NBAF sits on a 48-acre campus just a stone's throw away from Kansas State University. Once its science work is fully operational -- possibly in late 2024 -- the 574,000-square-foot laboratory is expected to become one of the premier laboratories globally for research on highly contagious foreign-animal diseases.

Last week, DTN was among a group of journalists who were granted a tour of the new laboratory facility.

NBAF came out of a 2004 homeland security directive from President George W. Bush, and the facility is considered "critical infrastructure" to the security of the food system to prevent the risks of foreign-animal diseases being introduced into the U.S. naturally, accidentally or intentionally. The new facility is designated as a national security asset.

"We need to provide our scientists with the tools to develop the next generation of countermeasures and diagnostics," said Alfonso Clavijo, director of NBAF and former director of Canada's National Centre for Animal Disease. "So, the need for having NBAF is critical."

Initially, NBAF was supposed to be a Department of Homeland Security facility, as DHS had taken over Plum Island in 2002. A 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump led Congress in 2019 to approve transferring operation of the facility over to USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). DHS still oversaw the construction of the campus.

BIOSAFETY CAPABILITIES

A key upgrade for NBAF over Plum Island is the addition of laboratories with higher levels of laboratory security, allowing for the study of more dangerous foreign diseases. Along with biosafety level 3 labs, NBAF also has biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs. Before NBAF, the U.S. did not have a laboratory capable of developing diagnostics and vaccines for certain zoonotic diseases -- those infections that can be naturally transmitted from animal to human. The World Health Organization cites that between 60% and 75% of new and emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.

NBAF will be one of just a handful of BSL-4 labs globally focusing on livestock diseases, and it will be the one lab with room built-in to securely hold large livestock such as cattle and hogs.

Plum Island already studies diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, but NBAF will study other zoonotic diseases such as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, (a tick-borne disease), as well as the Nipah virus, Japanese encephalitis virus and Rift Valley fever -- just to name a few.

Along with its study of livestock diseases, NBAF also has the capability to produce vaccines. That will be a key component of the facility. Few pharmaceutical companies want to spend R&D on a foreign animal disease that has yet to land. NBAF will be expected to take a lead in diagnostic and vaccine development. The facility will have the capability to produce up to 100 liters of vaccines, which would be enough for a trial.

"We cannot just wait until we have the disease to develop the vaccine and production," Clavijo said.

Clavijo said having both BSL-3 and BSL-4 capabilities will allow NBAF to collaborate with other health institutions and federal agencies.

SITE CRITICISMS

Kansas officials aggressively lobbied more than a decade ago to get NBAF to K-State, beating out states such as Texas in the process. Still, leaders from at least a few livestock groups raised concerns early on about building the new labs in the middle of one of the largest livestock-producing regions in the world. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report questioned the logic of locating in Kansas, due in part to the risk of storing highly infectious pathogens in a region prone to tornadoes.

While it's a risk no one would want to see in the middle of Manhattan and the university, NBAF officials stressed the facility was constructed so the labs and waste facilities on the campus can withstand the force of an F-5 tornado.

"This building is a steel structure surrounded by concrete. There is lots and lots of concrete with the floors and walls," said Carlos Rodriguez, an engineering project supervisor on the construction of NBAF.

Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, pointed out a 2010 report from the National Academy of Sciences that raised questions about the risks of an accidental introduction of foot-and-mouth disease. The U.S. has kept foot-and-mouth disease out of the country since 1929, and an accidental introduction would be financially devastating to the livestock industry.

"We are deeply troubled by this asinine facility in the heart of cattle country," Bullard said. He added, "You can minimize, but you can't prevent human error, and that's a very real risk based on past inadvertent releases of dangerous pathogens in other similar facilities. Even Plum Island experienced inadvertent releases."

Asked about those concerns by DTN, Clavijo pointed to several international standards related to biocontainment that NBAF will follow regarding the safety and security of anyone entering the facility. The security and safety standards in the labs go above international standards, he said.

"The risk of anyone taking any material is minimal, if not zero," Clavijo said. "The location of NBAF in Kansas is not a risk for anyone. We feel part of the community. We have a serious commitment, not just to our staff, but the community, to ensure that everything is done the way it is supposed to be. Everyone who works here lives within 30 miles of Manhattan."

Also, it should be noted that while NBAF was built in a region with a lot of livestock, most U.S. BSL-4 labs studying human diseases are located near major cities, including Boston, San Antonio, Richmond, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.

Now in a world coming out of one of its worst pandemics, and allegations that COVID-19 sprang from a lab in China, scientists and staff at NBAF during the past couple of years have found themselves reaching out to residents in local articles and radio interviews. Most of the reporters at last week's briefing were local media and a couple of agricultural publications. NBAF leaders focused on the technology, procedures and culture around safety and assurances in place at the facility.

BUILT-IN PROTECTIONS

A BSL-4 lab is given that designation based on the security levels built into the facility. BSL-4 labs require special procedures regarding air flow, showering and pressurized security doors. Researchers will be required to wear fully contained suits with dedicated air supplies from a series of air hoses throughout the lab space.

A big part of the level-4 lab is the necropsy room where researchers will conduct autopsies on animals to study the specific impacts of diseases. Given that researchers will be using sharp cutting tools while wearing air-pressured biosecurity suits, it will take a lot of training and testing procedures to ensure protections are met. Procedures and trials will begin with "clean animals" and then move to less-risky pathogens before stepping up to the highest levels of pathogen risks.

"When you are in here, nothing gets rushed," said Charles Lewis, the team lead for the BSL-4 lab for APHIS.

If they aren't already, NBAF researchers will grow accustomed to frequent showers as well. Scientists who work in the BSL-3 and 4 laboratories could find themselves taking potentially as many as 20 showers daily, lasting 5 minutes each, depending on their work and movements.

When it comes to destroying bio-contaminates, NBAF also has the "world's largest waste-water thermal decontamination system." Effluent from each of the labs flows to one of 11 basement tanks, each capable of holding about 9,000 gallons of water waste. Tanks are dedicated to different labs and spaces in the facility. Once heated to kill pathogens, the wastewater is filtered, then ends up in a wetlands chamber before eventually ending up in Manhattan's wastewater.

Livestock carcasses from the laboratories will also flow into two separate tanks where the muscle and bones will be ground and pressure cooked. What remains will be a slurry that will end up in a barrel then again heated down to ash. Other hazardous waste from labs will be incinerated as well.

On a tour of the facility, operations engineers pointed out the giant manifolds for nearly 1,000 highly efficient particulate air (HEPA) filter systems used in the facility. Engineers also highlighted various airflow and pressurized air systems in the laboratories.

STAFFING UP

It will take time to fully staff up the science mission and shift from Plum Island to Manhattan, possibly a couple of years. No animals or equipment will transfer from Plum Island, but a chain of custody has been developed for pathogens.

"We don't do anything to move into science until we feel everything is safe and secure," said Ken Burton, deputy director of the facility.

NBAF currently has about 280 employees but expects there will be about 400 employees when fully staffed and the science mission develops. While a few staff at NBAF have come from Plum Island, NBAF officials said only a small group of workers chose to relocate. At some point after NBAF is fully operational, USDA will start to close the Plum Island labs.

To expand the group of scientists who might work at NBAF, the facility has started working with researchers at several universities to develop fellows. APHIS has a lab training program the agency is developing with several universities and colleges as well.

ANIMAL CARE

In the animal care areas -- which also have showers and special entry rooms for workers -- the facility has an array of pens in sealed rooms that ensure the one-way flow of livestock in the facility once they enter.

"I've never been able to have press in one of our facilities," said Maggie Behnke, NBAF's attending veterinarian, standing in the facility's largest single livestock pen. Behnke added, "I don't want you to leave concerned about what happens here."

Behnke explained the labs have an animal-care committee that will conduct reviews of the facility and the management of animals. An important aspect of livestock research is to try to make sure the animals are comfortable with their surroundings and care.

"We don't want them to be frustrated," Behnke said. "We want them to be as stress-free as possible and be in as typical a situation as possible."

For more on NBAF, visit https://www.usda.gov/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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