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Celebration Marks Completion of $1.2 billion NBAF Lab for Studying Animal-to-Human Pathogens


By Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector


MANHATTAN, Kan. — National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility researcher Lisa Hensley’s career took her from laboratory to laboratory and country to country to study the alphabet soup of ghastly pathogens such as SARs, monkeypox, MERs and Marburg.

But she said an Ebola outbreak in the West Africa country of Liberia brought home what it meant to be in a country with a health-care system overwhelmed by a disease carrying a high mortality rate, without readily available treatment and vaccination options, and complicated by distorted public attitudes about the threat.

“Their reactions were across the board,” Hensley said. “There were a lot of people who just didn’t even believe in Ebola. Thought it was something the government was doing. When I went to set up the lab, I remember the people didn’t ever want to take anything from my hands. There was this fear.”

She said the lone treatment facility in Liberia’s capitol couldn’t keep pace with the sick and dying. People driving the ill to a hospital or burying the dead became targets of infection. In other parts of the nation, treatment centers were attacked by skeptics who didn’t believe the virus was naturally occurring.

“Being in there and being a scientist … my heart ached for the people there because there was so much fear and trauma and they didn’t understand how it was being spread,” she said.

Those field experiences and jobs with the National Institutes of Health’s Integrated Research Facility and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, both in Maryland, put her on a path to the newly constructed NBAF complex in Manhattan. She is research leader for the NBAF’s Zoonotic and Emerging Disease Research Unit and responsible for developing and managing a portfolio concentrated on infectious diseases in large animals such as cattle, sheep and hogs.

Ripping Band-Aid off

On Wednesday, officials of local, state and federal government celebrated completion of the research facility constructed to replace a laboratory built nearly 70 years ago in Plum Island, N.Y. While the process of constructing the facility has been finished, full transfer of the science mission from the BSL-3 Plum Island station to NBAF in Manhattan could take a couple years. Research activity at NBAF is expected to gradually expand.

At NBAF, about 400 personnel will eventually make the $1.25 billion laboratory their scientific home. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security presided over construction, but NBAF will be owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said NBAF was the first U.S. laboratory with biosafety level-4 containment areas capable of more fully engaging in large livestock research essential to the agricultural economy. He was joined at the event by Gov. Laura Kelly and former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Sam Brownback, as well as U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall as well as former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

“This new, innovative facility will give USDA scientists access to cutting-edge, safe and secure technology so they can continue to lead the world in animal health research, training and diagnostics to protect our food supply, agricultural economy and public health,” Vilsack said. “America’s farmers, ranchers and consumers count on our researchers and diagnosticians to understand, monitor for and develop solutions to combat a variety of high-consequence animal pathogens, and a facility of this magnitude positions us to respond.”

The federal government began conversations about a new research laboratory in the 1990s. Requests for construction proposals for NBAF were sought in 2006. Manhattan was selected from 18 potential sites to house the research facility. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will share NBAF’s operational responsibilities.

“NBAF is a strategic national asset that will help USDA stay proactive in leading efforts to protect public health and address new and emerging diseases,” said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics. “This new, modernized facility is a critical down payment in ensuring our country has the tools we need to keep the American people and our agricultural animals safe.”

The facility is adjacent to Kansas State University and located on a 48-acre NBAF campus with more than 700,000 square feet of building space.

Door to Discovery

NBAF will focus on research to understand high-consequence and emerging animal diseases and develop countermeasures, such as vaccines and antivirals. There will be work on prevention, surveillance, diagnosis and response to diseases, including management of two vaccine banks and the training of state and federal veterinarians to recognize livestock diseases.

Hensley, for example, will operate in a state-of-the-art biosafety level-4 laboratory at NBAF — the highest level of U.S. research biocontainment. Those spaces require scientists to wear protective suits with respirators, enter laboratory spaces through air-locked rooms and undergo a series of showers when exiting areas exposed to contaminants.

Hensley said the COVID-19 pandemic gave people a taste of what could transpire if there was the type of disease outbreak that undermined the crop or animal agricultural industries and derailed the domestic food supply.

“I love teaching. I love educating. I love the opportunity to explain to the public the great potential we have to have positive impact,” Hensley said in an interview. “There’s just growing recognition of how vulnerable we are on the ag side. What excites me, what brings me joy, is making a difference.”

NBAF researcher Charles Lewis, who worked at a USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa, as well as the research complex in Plum Island, said NBAF would be a leap ahead for animal science.

“The capacity that we will have here, the abilities we will have in this space, so far exceed what has been capable previously,” he said.

In other laboratories, he said, the size of animal handling rooms limited research on pigs to those under the age of seven weeks. NBAF opened a door to research with livestock that were immunologically or sexually mature, Lewis said.

Inside NBAF

Alfonso Clavijo, director of the NBAF research installation, said the process of initiating scientific activity on diseases such as African swine fever, avian influenza or foot-and-mouth disease wouldn’t be rushed. There is a philosophy of crawling, walking and jogging before running research programs at NBAF.

“NBAF’s Midwest location offers researchers and diagnosticians closer proximity to develop key partnerships with the animal health industry and several academic institutions,” Clavijo said. “NBAF will create opportunities between scientists and animal health companies to enhance and expedite the transition of new veterinary countermeasures from research to market.”

The disease agents stored at Plum Island will be gradually transported to Manhattan by methods that officials said couldn’t be disclosed publicly. A range of inspections based on federal and international standards must be completed to assure systems protecting public health functioned properly before operating NBAF a full power perhaps in late 2024, Clavijo said.

“As you can imagine, there is a long process,” he said. “Even if we have all the facilities ready to go, there is a number of compliance elements that have to be taken into consideration.”

In advance of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, NBAF researchers offered reporters a tour of laboratories packed with equipment, animal holding areas void of livestock as well as sophisticated facilities relied upon to protect the public from pathogens. Livestock used in experiments — such as Holstein steers — would be moved inside a facility that resembled more of a hospital than a barn. Animals would temporarily reside in containment rooms until euthanized.

NBAF consists of routine business offices, low- and high-level research laboratories and an area for manufacture of vaccines. NBAF will be a federally funded laboratory with research relationships with universities, including Kansas State University, as well as private companies working to develop testing and vaccination products. The facility will be among Manhattan’s most secure buildings and won’t be open to the public.

Air pressure controls in laboratories and hallways help seal work spaces from the outside world, a football field of filter equipment scrubs indoor air and carcasses of animals used in research undergo sterilization in autoclaves before incinerated. There are a series of fluid decontamination tanks, or pressure cookers, to deal with liquid waste from laboratories. Watery fluids also would undergo treatment by the city.

Electrical power to NBAF comes from seven 2,000 megawatt generators with sufficient power to serve 15,000 homes. Enough paint was used on the NBAF project to cover 69 acres of ground. Electric wire at NBAF could stretch 850 miles to New Orleans. The concrete poured during construction could shape a sidewalk covering the 300 miles from Manhattan to Oklahoma City.

Portions of the federal research structure were designed to withstand an EF-5 tornado or equivalent of a car flying into the building at 92 mph.