Given all the attention to zoonotic and foreign animal diseases this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may come as a surprise that the United States doesn’t have a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory where the most dangerous zoonotic pathogens (those that can transfer from animals to humans) can be studied in livestock.
However, this will soon change. By 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin conducting research in the $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which is nearing completion in Manhattan, Kansas, adjacent to the campus of Kansas State University. USDA NBAF will be the first U.S. facility to offer BSL-4 laboratories capable of housing cattle, swine, sheep and other large livestock for zoonotic disease research.
“Currently, there are only four BSL-4 livestock laboratories in the world capable of doing this type of research on high-consequence foreign animal diseases. NBAF will become number five,” said NBAF Coordinator Ken Burton, DVM. (In case you’re wondering, the other labs are in Australia, England, Germany and Canada.)
“Being a part of this international community where NBAF will be working on these high-consequence diseases will give us the opportunity to not only do the research here in the United States, but to be part of that collaboration between those laboratories and the scientists who work there around the world. By doing that, we can do a better job of combatting those diseases before they get to the United States,” Burton said.
BSL-4 containment laboratories require the highest safety protocol and equipment — such as positive pressure “space” suits — so scientists can safely study a variety of dangerous pathogens that can transfer from animals to humans, have significant public health implications, and have no treatment or vaccine available.
“NBAF will allow us a safe space to work with these pathogens to develop vaccines and other countermeasures,” said NBAF Director Alfonso Clavijo, DVM, PhD. “Otherwise, it would be impossible to do it.”
To protect the food supply and support the U.S. economy, NBAF will enable the U.S. to conduct comprehensive research, develop vaccines and anti-virals, and provide enhanced diagnostic and training capabilities to protect the nation from animal diseases that are:
The new facility will replace the 65-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC). NBAF will expand on PIADC’s mission and become the nation’s center for internationally recognized emerging and transboundary animal disease experts. NBAF scientists will assist other countries in addressing significant animal disease situations and will partner with public health officials to protect animal and public health.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 70% of new and emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic diseases. It is believed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, is zoonotic and may have originated from a virus found in bats.
The day it opens, NBAF will become the gold-standard for research facilities of its kind. In our increasingly interconnected world, disease threats are rising at an alarming rate and long-term social, cultural and environmental trends — such as climate change, increasing population density, and changes in human migration patterns — will only increase those threats.
“It is clear that the current world is more interconnected,” Clavijo said. “We’ve seen in many of the latest events that diseases can travel very rapidly. Not just diseases between humans, but livestock diseases and diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. We must have the capacity to develop countermeasures like vaccines and diagnostics that can help protect us against these pathogens.
NBAF will be the home of internationally recognized animal disease experts who will likely be called upon to assist other countries in addressing significant animal disease situations and to partner with public health officials when needed to protect animal and human health.
“NBAF’s primary mission is researching livestock foreign animal diseases, or high-consequence foreign animal diseases at the BSL-3 or 4 level. That includes those diseases that are zoonotic,” Burton said. “From a public health perspective, that will give NBAF scientists the expertise to support infectious disease research in humans.
This rapid rise of new diseases has made biosecurity/biodefense a quickly growing interdisciplinary science. Both public and private laboratories are working to better understand these diseases and develop experimental biologicals, diagnostics, and vaccine-related products to mitigate future outbreaks.
Over the next few years, leading scientists will begin relocating to Manhattan, Kansas, to work at NBAF. Likewise, biosecurity and animal health companies have started locating nearby for future collaborations and partnerships.
“NBAF will be a state-of-the-art building with the latest technology and with the best scientists to address the clear needs of the nation,” Clavijo said. “We expect to collaborate with industry, with academia, and with the local community to develop those tools that we need. We will also develop many of the technologies that need to be transferred to industry in a way that will benefit all of us.”
This nearly 700,000 sq. ft. self-contained facility with about 400 personnel will build on 65 years of foundational expertise established at PIADC. In addition to the BSL-4 lab spaces, NBAF will house BSL-2 laboratories that will maintain and provide cell lines cultured to help scientists quickly diagnose and control the spread of animal disease. NBAF also will have BSL-3 Enhanced and BSL-3 Agriculture labs — able to house large livestock — for studying disease detection, vaccine development and disease transmission.
NBAF will be home to several one-of-a-kind research efforts key in understanding, diagnosing, and fighting foreign and zoonotic diseases, including:
In addition to its research and emergency response missions, NBAF will increase the number of field veterinarians who are trained in foreign animal disease diagnostics. NBAF’s training facilities will provide opportunities for federal and state veterinarians to see these diseases in real time so they can better understand and identify them.
“Many of these foreign animal diseases look like diseases veterinarians see on a day-to-day basis. The only way to differentiate them is by very subtle changes or diagnostic platforms,” Burton said. “The more veterinarians we can get trained and the more foreign animal disease diagnosticians (FADDs) we create, the more quickly we can mount an ag response when an outbreak occurs.”
In 2008, after an extensive national search, the Department of Homeland Security announced that NBAF would be built in Manhattan, Kansas, adjacent to Kansas State University. This location allows NBAF scientists to leverage proximity to K-State — a major land-grant university with an extensive agricultural focus and a top veterinary school. Manhattan is the western border of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, an established innovation sector with the highest concentration of animal health companies and assets in the world, reaching from Manhattan to Columbia, Missouri.
Partners at K-State have developed a local innovation district that will surround the NBAF grounds. This district includes the K-State Veterinary Medicine Complex; the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI), a BSL3-Ag biocontainment facility providing lab space for both university and industry research; the Kansas Department of Agriculture headquarters and its laboratory; and the new K-State Office Park, which offers commercial office and laboratory space, as well as shovel-ready building sites adjacent to NBAF and K-State.
To learn more about NBAF, its capabilities and mission, and job opportunities, visit usda.gov/nbaf. To learn more about opportunities for private industry to locate near NBAF or Kansas State University, please contact the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership.