Homeland Security Wants to Build Bio-Defense Lab in Kansas

MANHATTAN, Kansas, December 26, 2008 (ENS) - The Department of Homeland Security is recommending Kansas State University in Manhattan as the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility for the study of foreign animal and zoonotic diseases that can affect livestock. Zoonotic diseases are those caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between animals and humans.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, representing more than 76,000 veterinarians working in private and corporate practice, government, industry, academia, and uniformed services, is backing federal legislation to establish the facility.

Released earlier this month, the final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, analyzes the potential risks of building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at six possible locations: Athens, Georgia; Manhattan, Kansas; Madison County, Mississippi; Granville County, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; and Plum Island, New York.

The FEIS also assesses the alternative of not building a new facility. During the evaluation period, Homeland Security held 16 public meetings and received hundreds of comments.

The FEIS lists the strengths of the Kansas site as including proximity to existing research capabilities and workforce, notably at Kansas State's veterinary college, agriculture college, and Biosecurity Research Institute.

Almost all environmental impacts fell into the "no impacts to minor impacts" category. The site would be among the least expensive for construction and operating costs, taking into consideration contributions from local consortia. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility also has strong community acceptance.

"This might very well be the most important thing that has happened to Kansas State University in the entire history of the university," said Jon Wefald, PhD, president of the university. "Never before in the history of Kansas has a national federal laboratory of this magnitude been sited in the state. We are talking about a half-billion-dollar animal health facility that will be the finest laboratory of its kind in the entire world."

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility also could be beneficial to the animal health companies that have clustered in an area around Kansas City. A recent initiative has promoted the region as the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor.

Wherever it is built, the high-security facility will replace Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, New York, the only location in the United States for research on the live virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease.

The Department of Homeland Security has oversight of Plum Island, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts the research there on foreign animal diseases.

Homeland Security has determined that the existing facility on Plum Island is too small and too old to meet new research needs. The facility also is not appropriate for research on zoonotic disease at biosafety level 4, according to the department and it will be closed once the new facility is operational.

In early December, Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate released the final environmental impact statement for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The directorate will publish a formal record of decision on January 12, 2009. Facility design is expected to begin this year, with construction to begin in 2010. Plans call for the facility to be operational by 2015.

"This facility, once built, will help us to protect our livestock industry, food supply, and public health from the accidental or intentional introduction of a foreign animal or zoonotic disease in the U.S.," said Jay Cohen, Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology. "The assessment process was extensive, engaging experts within and without the government as well as each potential site community, and this final report carefully weighs the input from all interested parties."

The new facility will provide the environment suitable for study of virulent diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans such as:

  • Foot and Mouth Disease: Viral disease of domestic and wild cloven-hoofed animals; acute disease characterized by fever, lameness, and vesicular lesions on the feet, tongue, mouth and teats; FMD is considered to be one of the most contagious, infectious diseases known; cost estimates of an introduction of FMD in the U.S. are more than $37 billion.
  • Classical Swine Fever: Wild and domestic swine are the only known natural reservoir; widespread throughout the world and has the potential to cause devastating epidemics, particularly in countries free of the disease; any outbreak of CSF would have serious consequences for domestic and international trade of swine and swine products; improved countermeasures are needed.
  • African Swine Fever: Infected animals have high mortality rates; effective countermeasures are not available for infected animals; no vaccines are available to prevent infection; no treatment exists for ASF and countermeasures need improvements.
  • Rift Valley Fever: Virus affects human beings and cloven-hoofed animals (sheep, goats, cattle, camels, buffalo and deer); suitable countermeasures to respond in the U.S. do not exist; risk for establishment of endemic disease; ranked as a major disease of concern with USDA, DHS, and other stakeholders.
  • Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia: Caused by an infective microorganism (Mycoplasma mycoides); primarily affects cattle including European-bred cattle and Zebu; a related form can affect goats; may survive for days in the environment; no treatment available.
  • Japanese Encephalitis Virus: Similar to St. Louis encephalitis virus; JE virus is amplified in the blood of domestic pigs and wild birds; the virus can infect humans, most domestic animals, birds, bats, snakes and frogs.
  • Nipah Virus - Biosafety Level 4: Virus was discovered in 1999; causes disease in swine and in humans through contact with infectious animals; mode of transmission between animals and from animals to humans is uncertain (appears to require close contact with infected tissues or body fluids); caused respiratory disease and encephalitis in people in Malaysia and Singapore; no drug therapies have yet been proven to be effective in treating Nipah infection; no countermeasures exist.
  • Hendra Virus - Biosafety Level 4: Formerly called equine morbillivirus; first isolated in 1994; the natural reservoir for Hendra virus is still under investigation; human beings and equines seem to be predominately affected; caused respiratory and neurological disease in horses and humans in Australia.

For more about the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility click here.

{Photo: Sign warning the public away from an infected area in Ponteland, Northumberland, England by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto}

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