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USDA, DHS dedicate agro-defense lab approved in 9/11 aftermath

Two decades after the September 11 attacks shaped American resolve against terror, the federal government dedicated a $1.25 billion agro-defense laboratory in eastern Kansas on Wednesday to protect the U.S. food supply from zoonotic animal diseases. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) will conduct research on dangerous livestock diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, and develop countermeasures, such as vaccines.

USDA officials said the NBAF, with 11.5 acres of floor space in its main building, would provide worldwide leadership in disease research. The laboratory is located on 48 acres adjacent to Kansas State University and on the western end of a so-called animal health corridor of corporate and academic facilities that stretches through Kansas City to the University of Missouri in central Missouri.

“The research that’s going to be done here is in fact critically important to protect American agriculture,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the final speaker during a dedication ceremony held on the NBAF lawn. “We’re talking about not just food supply and the national security implications of that. We’re also talking about economic security.”

The NBAF was built under the guidance of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and will be owned and operated by the Agriculture Department. With some of the country’s highest-level biosecurity laboratories — with enough room to work with large livestock — the NBAF will be an upgrade from its predecessor, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off New York’s Long Island, which has been in operation since 1954.

“This is a monumental day for our state,” said Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. “This $1.25 billion lab, the only one of its kind in the country, will put us on the front lines of making the entire country and the world safer, healthier, and more resilient through research, training, and diagnostics.” Kelly said 120 animal health companies were located in the animal health corridor.

Former Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who highlighted the risk biological weapons pose to food production, was credited with playing an influential role in Kansas’ selection from among five finalists in 2008. “The race had its roots in the anthrax terrorist attacks of 2001, after which the U.S. government went on a spending spree to develop new biosecurity research complexes,” the journal Nature said at the time.

“We must be prepared for a threat that could have been disastrous over 20 years ago, and I believe still remains,” said Roberts during the dedication. “It is so easy to do, and the consequences are so terribly severe, short and long term.”

The NBAF grew out of a 2004 homeland security directive from President George W. Bush setting “a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” The White House instructed the DHS and USDA to “develop a plan to provide safe, secure, and state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories that research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases.”

Originally, the NBAF was to be a DHS facility, but the Trump administration decided the USDA should be in charge, and Congress agreed in 2019. The state and local governments paid a quarter of the cost of the facility, located in Manhattan, Kansas.

About 400 people will work at the NBAF when it is fully operational. The facility is undergoing an “operational endurance period” at present to make sure research and diagnostics can be accomplished safely.

The USDA home page for the NBAF is available here.

To watch a video of the dedication ceremony, click here.

8:54 Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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