The potential cost of pathogen outbreaks—in human health, in animal health, and in profits—is immense, which is the motivation for developing the biosafety level-4 (BSL4) National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NABF) in Manhattan, Kan. In a signing ceremony in late June, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed to transfer ownership and responsibility for the NABF (presently under construction) to USDA.
“Think about your average cheeseburger,” suggests John Verrico, chief of media and community relations for DHS Science & Technology Directorate. “You’ve got beef. You’ve got cheese, which comes from the dairy cows. You’ve got the grains that are fed to those animals as well as the additional grains made into the bread. If there’s an outbreak [of a pathogen like foot and mouth disease], we’d not only have a problem with our beef cattle and our dairy cattle, but then we also have a whole lot of wasted feed that doesn’t get fed to herds that don’t exist anymore.”
The NBAF will replace Plum Island Animal Disease Center, in operation in New York State since the 1950s, which is the only facility of its kind in the U.S. Plum Island, originally under the direction of the USDA, studied foreign animal diseases such as African swine fever, classical swine fever, and foot and mouth disease. The facility was responsible for eradicating cattle plague rinderpest, as well as for developing a molecular foot-and-mouth vaccine that eschews the traditional practice of basing vaccines on viral cells. Prior to a molecular vaccine, testing rested on the presence of antibodies, making it impossible to determine through blood tests which animals were infected versus which had simply been vaccinated. As a result, entire herds of animals traditionally had to be euthanized during an outbreak. But that wouldn’t be the end the problem.
“If there were an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country,” Verrico explains, “it would cost billions, many billions of dollars in lost productivity and damage to the food supply. We wouldn’t be able to export our beef and pork products until a minimum of six months after the outbreak has been proven to be ended.”
Although Plum Island has been successful in studying diseases that strictly affect livestock, Verrico points out that the new array of threats are diseases emerging from livestock from around the world that can be transmitted to humans. In addition to being old, and “on the smallish side,” Plum Island is only biosafety level-3 (BSL-3), which is not rated for the study of diseases transmissible to humans.
Verrico says this recent agreement continues a long-working relationship between the DHS and USDA. Following the September 11 attacks, DHS was created with the mandate to protect the USA’s critical infrastructure, which included food safety. At that point, DHS began its involvement in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. The June signing ceremony promises to transfer ownership and operation of the NABF back to USDA upon its completion.
“We’ve been working hand in hand and side by side for all of these years,” says Verrico. “We still will be involved, we just don’t need to be the owners of the laboratory.”
The NABF will be the only BSL-4 lab in the U.S. for the study of large livestock animals. Construction is due to be completed in 2021, but the lab will likely not become operational until 2023 due to the complexity of outfitting a BSL-4 lab and transferring the work there from Plum Island. Personnel in BSL-4 labs must wear positive-pressure protective suits (sometimes called “moon suits”) and work in Class-II biosafety cabinets. Labs of that level must also be built to withstand natural disasters, and there are only a handful of them in the world, but they confer a priceless national level of confidence in food production.