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February 01, 2021

Federal complex to expand animal disease studies, diagnostics

National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility completion expected in 2022
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National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility near Manhattan, KansasA laboratory complex under construction near Manhattan, Kansas, will help federal animal health officials study more diseases and expand existing programs.

Dr. Kenneth R. Burton, coordinator of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, said COVID-19 delayed some progress on opening the $1.25 billion facility, but it still should be completed within the next two years.

The Department of Agriculture and Department of Homeland Security started construction of the facility in 2015. It replaces the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, in Suffolk County, New York, which became the nation’s primary laboratory for foreign animal diseases in 1954.

National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility near Manhattan, Kansas
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Homeland Security are nearing completion of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility near Manhattan, Kansas. (Photos courtesy of USDA)
Dr. Burton
Dr. Kenneth R. Burton, coordinator of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility

Dr. Burton talked with JAVMA News about progress on the facility and how he expects it will benefit animal health. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Can you give an approximate timeline for opening the NBAF?

A. Originally, our timeline was set for substantial completion on Dec. 10, 2020. And substantial completion is basically the time when construction was completed and the facility would be turned over to USDA, by DHS, for ownership and operations. Several months ago, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate notified us that they were predicting a 2 1/2-month delay in substantial completion because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, we’re working with DHS to mitigate challenges associated with that potential delay. Things are moving forward on schedule for USDA as far as operational stand-up, but we’re working with DHS to identify exactly when substantial completion will occur and how soon we can begin phasing the USDA workforce into NBAF. I don’t have a solid date for you right now, but, again, we’re still working with that 2 1/2-month predicted delay, so it should be sometime in fiscal year 2021. [After the interview, the USDA announced plans for substantial completion of construction by October 2021.]

We’re scheduled to reach full operational capability by the end of 2022. What that means is that we have all of the certifications in place so we can work with pathogens that are going to be researched in NBAF. And then our end goal is that we’d like to have all of the programs transferred off of Plum Island by the end of 2023.

Q. Can you give an overview of how the NBAF will be an improvement over Plum Island?

A. One of the things that we always try to emphasize is the fact that Plum Island itself has such a rich tradition of excellent science, research, training, and diagnostics over its 65-year history that to replace Plum Island is probably a misnomer. We’re looking to expand on programs and the rich tradition of science that researchers at Plum Island have established.

Because of its size and the new technology—and the expansion beyond Plum Island’s programs—the NBAF is going to really increase the capabilities for the United States on researching transboundary animal livestock diseases, training, and diagnostics.

Q. Could you provide some specific examples of diseases that you’ll be able to study or diseases you’ll be able to study more effectively at NBAF?

A. Currently at Plum Island, the USDA scientific teams focus on foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, and African swine fever. When we move those programs to NBAF in Manhattan, they’ll be able to expand the biosafety level 3 agriculture research to also include Japanese encephalitis and Rift Valley fever at the BSL-3 ag level.

Plum Island currently does not have the capability to do livestock research at the highest level of containment—or biosafety level 4. As a matter of fact, there’s only four other facilities in the world that are capable of doing that type of research, and NBAF will be the fifth. We’ll be able to do work on diseases like Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever. We’ll be able to do work on Nipah virus. Many of those diseases are zoonotic diseases that have the potential to affect humans. And so that opens up a whole new level of research.

The other part of it is training and diagnostics. Currently, there’s the foreign animal disease diagnostician course at Plum Island that trains state and federal veterinarians to be able to identify many of these transboundary animal diseases in the field. A lot of transboundary animal diseases look very similar to domestic diseases that we see in livestock, and the only way you can differentiate many of those is through a diagnostic platform. So we’ll be able to train more veterinarians at NBAF so we’ve got more veterinarians who are able to recognize some of these diseases.

And diagnostic capabilities are going to be expanded. Currently, we have the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Plum Island, which is a reference laboratory for the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and our National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which is a network of about 60 diagnostic laboratories across the nation that focus on animal health diagnostics. So we’ll be a real integral part of all of those missions and expand a lot of the work that’s being done there.

The other thing I might mention: We’ll have what’s called a biologics development module. It’s a unique opportunity to take the science that occurs in the laboratories at NBAF and bring it out of the laboratories to the private sector—to the pharmaceutical industry, to the animal health industry. And it will have proof-of-concept, small-scale production facility capability. They’ll be able to take the science, look at what it takes to produce some of these vaccines and diagnostic platforms, and do some small-scale ‘lessons learned’ or identify some of the challenges that they might encounter.

Finally, the North American Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank and the newly funded National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank oversight will also be managed from NBAF as critical assets to our mission.

Q. What’s going to happen to the Plum Island facility?

A. The facility is actually currently owned and operated by the Department of Homeland Security, so they will be responsible for decommissioning the facility. And I don’t have the specifics of what goes on after that. But my understanding is that the facility, the island, and everything—once it’s decommissioned—will be put up for sale.


The USDA provides more information on the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.