New facility to advance study of foreign animal disease

Kansas site recommended for National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to replace Plum Island
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No vaccines, no treatment, no countermeasures.

This description covers a number of the foreign animal diseases that scientists are studying now at Plum Island Animal Disease Center or will be studying in the future at the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The NBAF will improve the capabilities of the Department of Agriculture to develop vaccines, conduct diagnostics, and train veterinarians in the recognition of foreign animal diseases.

The Department of Homeland Security, which has oversight of the facility on Plum Island, N.Y., announced recently that it is recommending Kansas State University as the site of the $650 billion replacement facility. The formal record of decision was not available at press time.

The university and its veterinary college stand to benefit from the NBAF, as do the region's livestock and animal health industries.

Tom Burrage, PhD
Tom Burrage, PhD, a microbiologist at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, studies foot-and-mouth disease pathogenesis with the electron microscope.

And the nation will be readier for emerging animal diseases, some of which are likely to be zoonotic.


Jamie Johnson, DHS director of national laboratories, said the infrastructure of Plum Island is more than 50 years old. The NBAF will be an update and expansion.

Notably, the new facility will include a laboratory that can handle large animals at the highest biosafety level, BSL-4. Existing BSL-4 laboratories in the United States are for the study of diseases that affect primarily humans, with oversight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists have been unable to study certain zoonoses in large animals.

"We want to be in a position to study and diagnose those diseases that are emerging down the road," Johnson added.

Currently, scientists on Plum Island are concentrating on developing a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, but the NBAF will expand the capacity for vaccine trials by adding more space for large animals. The NBAF also will improve on Plum Island's diagnostic and training capabilities with new technology and additional employees.

Choosing a site for the new facility has been a three-year process, Johnson said. The other finalists were Athens, Ga.; Madison County, Miss.; Granville County, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas. The DHS also considered the options of building on Plum Island or not building a new facility.

"Kansas demonstrated superior strengths and fewer weaknesses than any of the other sites," Johnson said.

He said the K-State site offers proximity to the university's research facilities, veterinary college, and agriculture college. The site also is near the concentration of animal health companies around Kansas City.

"There are a lot of synergies and potential collaborations in this location," Johnson said.

The site also is in the heartland, potentially helpful for rapid diagnosis of foreign animal disease in food animals. In addition, the site might have lower employee turnover than the remote Plum Island, Johnson said.


Dr. Ralph C. Richardson, dean of the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine, said construction of the NBAF is a great occasion for the advancement of veterinary medicine—especially pertaining to livestock.  

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for us to begin training the next generation of USDA researchers," he added.

Dr. Richardson believes the K-State site for the NBAF stood out because of the existing regional collaboration among agriculture, academia, and industry. The state also contributed more than $100 million toward recruitment of the NBAF.

Because of the region's agricultural base, particularly in livestock, K-State began focusing on food safety and security in 1999. The university identified more than 130 scientists with an interest in the subjects, Dr. Richardson said, and they started working together on interdisciplinary projects and programs.

More recently, the animal health industry in and around Kansas City has been branding the area as the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor. The corridor encompasses the concentration of animal health companies on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border along with the veterinary colleges in Kansas and Missouri.

In 2007, K-State opened the Biosecurity Research Institute to improve research capabilities at the university. The BSL-3 Ag biocontainment facility permits the study of foodborne pathogens and infectious diseases of animals and plants. The lead work is by Dr. Juergen Richt, a prominent researcher who studies avian influenza and prion diseases.

Dr. Richardson said access to the research institute was another selling point for K-State as the site for the NBAF. One of the next steps is to determine whether some USDA researchers will move to the institute during construction of the NBAF.

"We look forward to new facilities coming on board for this country. This is more important than just the state of Kansas; this is a vitally important national resource," Dr. Richardson said. "We look forward to producing outstanding research and methods to protect the livestock industry of this country."

Plum Island

Dr. Lawrence R. Barrett, director of Plum Island, said the NBAF will set the stage for the next 50 years of research on foreign animal diseases. He emphasized that the new facility will provide the latest technology as well as additional space.

Plum Island scientists want to extend research beyond foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, and vesicular stomatitis to other diseases of concern such as African swine fever and Rift Valley fever.

"We need to have the capability to work at biolevel 4, also, just as CDC does with human diseases," Dr. Barrett added.

Plum Island is a BSL-3 facility. A BSL-4 laboratory would allow USDA researchers to study emerging zoonoses in large animals, such as the Nipah virus in swine and the Hendra virus in horses.

For rapid diagnostics, Dr. Barrett said, the NBAF will provide robotics and other new machinery. The facility also will offer more comfortable arrangements for training veterinarians about foreign animal disease, with more showers and changing rooms for the women who are increasingly dominating the profession.

Dr. Barrett said the NBAF will allow researchers to develop more than one vaccine at a time and increase research on fast-acting antiviral agents that induce resistance to viral infection within 24 hours.

"Fifty years from now we probably won't do vaccines as we know them today," Dr. Barrett predicted. "We will be working at the gene level, and so research will focus on bioinformatics and genomics. We need to be able to look more at genomics—not only the genomics of the microbes, but the genomics of the animals."

Dr. Barrett believes that the NBAF will improve the country's ability to respond to threats ranging from emerging diseases to biological terrorism.

Design of the new facility will begin this year, pending the formal DHS decision, with construction to begin in 2010. Plans call for the NBAF to be operational by 2015, and DHS eventually will close the facility on Plum Island.

Additional information is available at

Research at the future National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility

Diseases for study at biosafety level 3

  • Foot-and-mouth disease: FMD is a viral disease of domestic and wild, cloven-hoofed animals. Acute disease is 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. An introduction of FMD into the United States could cost more than $37 billion.
  • Classical swine fever: Wild and domestic swine are the only known natural reservoir of CSF. The disease is widespread throughout the world and has the potential to cause devastating epizootics, particularly in countries free of the disease. Any outbreak of CSF in the United States would have serious consequences for domestic and international trade of swine and swine products. Improved countermeasures are needed.
  • African swine fever: Animals that are infected with ASF have a high risk of death. No vaccines are available, and no treatment exists. Effective countermeasures are not available.
  • Rift Valley fever: The virus affects humans and cloven-hoofed animals. Suitable countermeasures for a U.S. response do not exist. There is a risk for the establishment of endemic disease. The virus is ranked as a major disease of concern with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Homeland Security, and other stakeholders.
  • Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia: The disease is caused by the infective microorganism Mycoplasma mycoides. It affects primarily cattle, including European-bred cattle and Zebu. A related form can affect goats. The virus may survive for days in the environment, and no treatment is available for the disease.
  • Japanese encephalitis virus: The virus is similar to the St. Louis encephalitis virus. JE virus is amplified in the blood of domestic pigs and wild birds. It can infect humans, most domestic animals, birds, bats, snakes, and frogs.

Diseases for study at biosafety level 4

  • Nipah virus: The virus was identified in 1999. It causes disease in swine and humans through contact with infectious animals. The mode of transmission between animals and from animals to humans is uncertain—but appears to require close contact with infected tissues or body fluids. Nipah virus has caused respiratory tract disease and encephalitis in people in Malaysia and Singapore. No drugs have yet been proved to be effective in treating the infection, and no countermeasures exist.
  • Hendra virus: Formerly called equine morbillivirus, the virus was first isolated in 1994. The natural reservoir is still under investigation. Humans and equids seem to be predominantly affected. Hendra virus has caused respiratory and neurologic disease in horses and humans in Australia.