The fact that Manhattan has made the short list of locations for the National Bio and Agro–defense Facility bodes well for its status as an emerging bioscience hub. But legitimate concerns over what the lab will mean for the livestock industry and the citizens of Manhattan and the surrounding area have been raised.
Understandably, some are worried about what might happen should a disease “escape” the facility. The diseases up for study at the facility include foot and mouth disease and the Nipah and Hendra viruses. Between ten and 20 percent of the facility’s lab space will be equipped to study diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans and have no known cure.
That prospect can seem pretty scary.
Some are concerned with bringing foot and mouth disease to the mainland, and to a part of the country where much of the U.S. livestock trade takes place. Foot and mouth is a highly contagious disease, with a devastating economic punch to match. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t seen the disease on U.S. soil in several decades. The last reported case in the United States was in 1929.
Concerned citizens have also suggested that the United Kingdom’s recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease is reason for concern. That outbreak has been attributed to a combination of factors, most importantly an aging, poorly maintained facility and breeches in biosafety protocols by construction workers at the site. This incident points out the importance of assuring that such facilities are well built and maintained. It underscores how critical it is to get it right from the outset. And that's something that Kansas State University has been doing for decades. We’ve operated a variety of high-level labs on campus, and are preparing to begin research at the latest and greatest addition, the Biosecurity Research Institute.
When we built the BRI, we resolved to make it the best and most secure facility possible. We made sure that multiple levels of protection were built into the facility with duplicate and triplicate back-up systems in place. After all, our faculty, our technicians and our students would be working there. K-State has a history of excellence and though the university won’t be building NBAF, we will be collaborating with them, and we are not willing to accept second best.
Today, research on foot and mouth takes place at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is literally a few miles off the East Coast. When that facility was built, the thought was that the physical barrier would protect people and animals from the spread of disease, should it be accidentally released. Prior to visiting Plum Island, I can tell you that I had believed that such a physical barrier would be very effective. I can now tell you that I had functioned under a false sense of security.
Birds nested on the island. Deer frequently swim to and from the island. (Prior to that visit I had not realized that deer could swim across Long Island Sound to the island.) During my visit, I even witnessed a family who had boated to the island to fish and picnic just off-shore. It became apparent to me that the security of that facility, and those like it, is in its construction and the precautions taken by the people who work there – not in its location. I learned that appropriately operating the containment facilities and meticulously adhering to biosafety protocols were the reasons that we have been able to safely conduct research on highly contagious infectious diseases for more than 50 years. It wasn’t a matter of “where” but of “how.”
Technology has also come a long way in the decades that Plum Island has been in operation – such a long way that proximity is less important. The National Institutes of Health recently found that placing a facility similar to NBAF into a bustling Boston suburb did not create an additional public risk. That Boston lab, unlike NBAF, will study Ebola virus and other human pathogens.
In this increasingly global society where disease can literally spread faster than wildfire, we can not bury our heads in the sand. The threat of animal and agricultural disease is real.
What NBAF represents is a chance for Manhattan to be proactive in eradicating diseases that threaten our food supply and public health.
What better place to put a facility charged with preventing and curing animal disease, than a university town with an internationally recognized veterinary school, a real-world animal science program and a renowned agriculture program.
The opportunity to host NBAF is a chance to be part of the solution, and K-State and Manhattan’s role in that is critical.
Yes, there’s a risk. But to not accept that in the face of the benefits for animals and mankind would be shortsighted.
Ralph Richardson is dean of Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, from which he received his DVM nearly 40 years ago.
Published in the November 23, 2007 edition of the Manhattan Mercury.