By Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest
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.
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. General Chat Chat Lounge
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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 about $ 130 billion in losses over a 10-year period in the meat industry.
“The NBAF is in a unique position to do diagnostics and training, as well as research and development of veterinary countermeasure 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 much of its research.
In 2002, following the 9/11 attacks, US 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 to improve their biodefense plans and weapons.
Plans for the NBAF came out of that presidential directive, and after a year-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 be officially transferred to USDA when construction is completed this spring.
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 fully operated by the US Department of Agriculture, according to a KSU spokesman.
Regulators cited Kansas State University in 2015 for repeated 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, include failing to maintain written safety plans, ensuring biosafety and containment of pathogens, and document training and implementing the university’s security plan to prevent unauthorized access, theft or loss of pathogens. General Chat Chat Lounge
University officials have maintained that all of the violations were related to paperwork and that pathogens were always protected, posing no risk to researchers or the public. The 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 the virus first emerged through contact between animals and humans in a seafood market in Wuhan.
Still lab accidents happen, and they are 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 the 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 bill behind the political action committee, 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 are 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 that 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 related to dangerous pathogens. But those accidents are not always made public, and when journalists request the information under public records laws, it is often 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 the NBAF, said the facility would follow all applicable laws.
“The NBAF already considers it a high priority to communicate openly about its research and diagnostic mission while maintaining security measures for the facility,” he wrote.
Kansas SB 441 passed the Senate Feb. 23 and is pending a committee hearing in the House.
Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom. Our mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism. Visit https://investigatemidwest.org/.
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