What role could NBAF play in future pandemics?

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NBAF construction began in 2013 after delays. It is expected to be fully operational by 2022. (Archive photo by Parker Robb | Collegian Media Group)

Manhattan, Kansas: Outsiders might see it as the middle-of-nowhere Midwest, while others know it for its sports teams. But to the majority of the world, the Little Apple is simply anonymous.

However, the completion of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility might change that.

In 2009, Manhattan was selected as the location for the new facility, which will be dedicated to protecting the United States against diseases that threaten the food supply, agricultural economy and public health.

A decade later, construction is nearing an end. The facility is expected to be fully operational by 2022.

“NBAF will be a critical component of a key U.S. Department of Agriculture priority — the development of vaccines and other countermeasures for the detection of diseases that threaten livestock, other animals and food from our nation’s farms and fields,” Katie Pawlosky, director of communications at NBAF, said via email.

NBAF’s construction has become even more relevant in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC says COVID-19 likely has a zoonotic origin.

“From the public health perspective, NBAF will provide the first high-containment, Biosafety Level 4 facility for livestock in the United States, enabling us to work on the most high-consequence ‘zoonotic’ animal diseases — those that can infect both livestock and people,” Pawlosky said. “Some studies have pointed to the fact that COVID-19 has an animal component, which means it could fall into the zoonotic category.”

Pawlosky said over 70 percent of emerging diseases that have affected humans in the last decade have an animal component.

“While NBAF will largely focus on animal diseases, it could play a supporting role in future public health crises with respect to livestock research, diagnostics, countermeasure development, training and response,” she said.

NBAF is to replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, where the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are currently conducting research, training and diagnostics, Pawlosky said.

“NBAF will replace this aging facility but will continue and expand on its mission, making NBAF the home of internationally recognized animal disease experts who will likely be called upon to assist other countries in addressing significant animal disease situations, and to partner with public health officials when needed to protect animal and human health,” she said.

Additionally, NBAF will host the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. Pawlosky said FADDL’s mission is to provide 24/7 diagnostic testing to respond to the introduction of foreign animal diseases into the United States.

“But because NBAF will have the first high-containment, Biosafety Level 4 facility for livestock in the U.S., we’ll also be able to identify, conduct research and develop veterinary countermeasures for the most high-consequence zoonotic diseases that can infect both livestock and people,” Pawlosky said.

While NBAF will help with some diseases that affect humans, its main focus will be the protection of livestock from pathogenic diseases.

Stephen Higgs, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute, said a different coronavirus began to present itself in U.S. livestock just a few years ago.

“We did have another coronavirus introduced into the United States in 2013 – porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which is a livestock disease,” Higgs said. “It spread rapidly throughout the U.S. within months and killed over 8 million pigs in a year.”

While NBAF is not functional for the current pandemic, there’s a good chance it will be able to help in the future if a disease has a zoonotic origin. The ability to identify the diseases in animals quickly is critical to minimizing the impact on public health, Pawlosky said.

“The training facilities at NBAF will allow us to double the number of veterinarians trained by the FADDL team every year as part of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostician Course, which provides an opportunity for federal and state veterinarians to see these diseases in real time so they can better understand them and know what to look for should an outbreak occur,” she said.

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Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the copy chief and deputy managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.