Against the hum of backhoes and bulldozers, a fortress of concrete and steel buildings gradually rises on the north end of Kansas State University’s campus.
The top-level federal biocontainment laboratory is designed to study the most infectious, exotic animal diseases — lethal to humans and capable of crippling the country’s livestock. They could hitch a ride from animal to animal or human to human. Hostile nations might even use the diseases to trigger mass chaos and possibly upend the U.S. food supply chain.
But, right now, there aren’t any animals around here. Just the construction site, a self-contained utility plant and a bunch of trailers belonging to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and McCarthy-Mortenson Joint Venture, a contractor that’s building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
“NBAF is on schedule, on time and on budget,” said Tim Barr, who’s the on-site DHS project manager, and a native of McPherson, Kansas.
Well, not exactly. There’s at least three years to go before NBAF even opens; it was supposed to in 2018. The $1.25 billion project has overrun its initial cost by hundreds of millions of dollars, partly due to needing stronger walls and barriers to prevent diseases from escaping. This is Tornado Alley, after all.
Funding and safety aside, NBAF had the backing of an influential congressman from Kansas, as well as others who saw the facility as an anchor for the area’s animal health corridor and for the regional economy.
Kansas won the project in 2009 after a fierce nationwide competition against five other locations, Harvest Public Media reported. It didn’t take long for one of the losing competitors, a Texas consortium, to sue Homeland Security, claiming the decision was political and ignored the risk of those tornadoes.
The suit was later dismissed by a federal judge, but there’s no question Kansas had a man in its corner. Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts had been shepherding NBAF toward the state ever since DHS was created in the wake of Sept. 11, and on through 2004, when then-President George W. Bush issued a directive about needing to protect against a terrorist attack on the nation’s food supply.
“All you do is put a handkerchief under the nose of a diseased animal in Afghanistan, put it in a Ziploc bag, come to the U.S. and drop it in a feed yard in Dodge City. Bingo! You’ve got a problem that could endanger our entire livestock herd,” Roberts said in a 2006 interview with KCUR.
Even now, Roberts, who has chaired both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, said the threat remains as urgent as ever, even if al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have all but disappeared from the headlines.
“It’s got super bipartisan support,” said Roberts, who noted that his recent decision to retire after his term is up in 2020 won’t affect the project or its funding. “And even though we’re not hearing anything about terrorism, it’s still front and center of our security concerns.”
Those security concerns were top-of-mind after a 2010 congressionally mandated review of the risk assessment stunned local and scientific communities.
Ronald Atlas chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee tasked with that work. He said at the time that there was a 70% chance over 50 years that foot-and-mouth disease would escape from NBAF. He estimated that would cause “$9 (billion) to $50 billion” worth of damage.
In response, DHS fortified the concrete walls and steel barriers in its plan. That, plus other extra measures, drove up the original price to more than $1 billion, but reduced to less than 1% the risk of a disease getting out and infecting either humans or the 6 million head of cattle in the state of Kansas.
An updated 2012 report, which cited the unavoidable risk of a release due to simple human error (e.g. a microbe escaping on the sole of a researcher’s shoe), was still criticized by the National Academies of Sciences as politically biased and methodologically flawed.
But financially, and from a federal standpoint, NBAF was a go. Kansas even kicked in more than $300 million, thanks to Sam Brownback, who was an early supporter when he was in the U.S. Senate and later as governor.
There’s always a question of what a given White House occupant prioritizes. In perhaps another sign the government is worrying less about what was once considered a major threat, future funding for the lab won’t be Homeland Security’s problem.
The Trump administration decided to move oversight of NBAF to the U.S. Department of Agriculture once construction is complete; the proposed 2019-20 fiscal year budget eliminated DHS’ ongoing operational funds for NBAF and added them to the budget of USDA.
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, an NBAF supporter from the start, worried that moving control to the USDA could jeopardize future funding.
“Crop insurance, food stamps always get the focus,” Carlin said. “And whether the operating money for NBAF would be a high enough priority that would always be funded, that remains to be seen.”
In addition, scientists who oversee regulation of biocontainment labs say federal commissioning, which involves an external review of processes and procedures before a biocontainment lab can be certified as secure, typically leads to cost overruns. But K-State veterinarian Marty Vanier, the government’s contracted liaison between NBAF and the Manhattan community, brushed off those worries.
“We’ve got a team, not only the design team but also folks that are part of the program office in the project who’ve been thinking about those kinds of details and working on those details for years,” she said in the lobby of the Kansas State University Foundation, just around the corner from NBAF site.
When pressed, she added that “we’re not planning” cost overruns.
Biocontainment labs of NBAF’s size and importance are astronomically expensive to maintain once in operation. Already, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking Congress for $400 million to replace a 14-year-old facility where scientists study Ebola and emerging flu strains. It was supposed to last 50 years.
“(NBAF) is going to get built,” said former USDA chief scientist Brad Fenwick, who helped define the United States’ biosafety response to Sept. 11. “Now the question is just how costly is it to certify to maintain and the research to be conducted in it, (is it) actually a priority?”
“Would it be our first choice as opposed to doing other types of research that (might be more) important to agriculture?”
In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease rapidly spread through the United Kingdom. The highly infectious disease causes cattle, pigs, goats and sheep to get high fevers and painful blisters in their mouths and on their feet. It’s often fatal.
UK officials had to take drastic measures. Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration? Canceled. Rugby matches? Canceled. Transportation of livestock? Cut off. More than 6 million animals had to be slaughtered, too.
All told, the outbreak lasted more than six months and cost the UK economy between $10 billion and $15 billion.
Researchers in the United States point to that outbreak as a reminder of how devastating an animal disease can be. It’s also partly why some experts argued for, and continue to support, NBAF. When it’s open, it will dramatically increase the number of state-of-the-art labs available to researchers and enhance their ability to develop detection tools and vaccines for deadly diseases such as foot-and-mouth, African swine fever and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a federal research lab on an island off the coast of New York state, is the only place in the United States where scientists are allowed to research live foot-and-mouth disease viruses. Their main mission: prevent it from coming to the U.S. by controlling and checking trade, and if that happens, quickly stop it from spreading.
“With current trade and illegal movement of animals, or even people, around the world, the probabilities of foot-and mouth disease entering a free country have increased,” said Luis Rodriguez, Plum Island’s director of foreign animal disease research. “And will probably continue to increase over time.”
But it’s an aging facility, open since 1954, and will be replaced by NBAF, with pretty much everyone from New York relocating to Manhattan. NBAF is the new Plum Island, and then some.
It’s a decision that didn’t make much sense to Nancy Connell, the senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who’s supervised high-level security labs for 25 years at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
She has been a part of the review process overseeing certification of biocontainment labs around the U.S., and was part of the expert committee that evaluated NBAF ahead of construction.
“I remember being disappointed that they couldn’t figure out a way to rebuild Plum (Island) and keep this kind of work … off the mainland,” she said. “Why, if so much money was going to be spent on a new laboratory, why that money couldn’t be spent on upgrading Plum?”
What really worried her was NBAF’s actual location, right in the middle of the mainland, in a state where, as one Kansas rancher described it, cattle outnumber people 2 to 1.
It’s a valid concern, especially because Plum Island hasn’t had a perfect record of containing foot-and-mouth disease. Since 1978, there have been three incidents of it spreading to animals and places it wasn’t supposed to. Two of those were in 2004, and in both instances, animals inside of the secure biocontainment area were found to be infected with the disease. It illustrates how easily it can spread because of human error.
The U.S. mainland already has more than 1,000 biosafety level-3 research labs (BSL-3) used to study dangerous diseases, including 14 at K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute. BSL-3 labs are some of the most secure around, specifically designed to contain the potentially deadly diseases and viruses.
To get inside, a researcher must start in a small locker room, where street clothes are removed and replaced with scrubs. A researcher then must put on a disposable gown and two sets of gloves before moving to the next room. Here, if required, the researcher gets into either a full-body hazardous-materials suit or a mask with a respirator that blows air down and over the face.
Only then can a researcher enter the lab, where air flows in from the outside to ensure any airborne diseases inside the lab stay there.
“We all live here, too, and we care probably more than anybody else about this stuff getting out,” Biosecurity Research Institute officer Julie Johnson said. “Because we’re more likely to be directly exposed if something bad happens.”
The BRI was completed in 2008 and its scientists work on diseases such as African swine fever and Rift Valley fever — two infectious diseases on NBAF’s priority list. But the BRI and other facilities can’t develop and test potential vaccines on dozens of animals at a time.
“We can do a lot of the research but not at that sort of scale,” BRI Director Stephen Higgs said. “Especially with foot-and-mouth disease, which, again, is very complicated. There are multiple different types, and you need that capacity.”
Of the thousands of BSL-3 labs in the U.S., most are only capable of studying small animals, such as mice and bats. That’s true of the BRI, too, where only five labs are capable of handling large animals like cattle or swine. But NBAF’s massive scale will provide space for 46 labs big enough for that type of livestock.
NBAF also will have the holy grail of livestock research labs: BSL-4. Only Canada, Australia and Germany have them. BSL-4 labs are where scientists can study highly contagious, airborne, zoonotic diseases — diseases that can pass between humans and animals — that have no known vaccination or treatment. In starker terms, they’re killers.
Currently, coordinating with the other BSL-4 labs can take months, even years, according to Jurgen Richt, a K-State researcher who specializes in zoonotic diseases.
“So if we have an emergency . we have to ask other countries to help us to work in these environments,” he said. “I don’t think this is feasible.”
Plus, most researchers say emerging diseases that’ll kill humans, like MERS or Nipah (which is transmitted through infected bats or pigs, or through another infected person), have origins in large animals. That’s why it’s critical to have BSL-4 labs in the U.S.
“You just can’t study pigs under the proper setting anywhere in the United States in any laboratory,” said Washington State University professor Terry McElwain, who led the 2012 study by the National Academies of Sciences looking at potential alternatives to NBAF. “It has to be very specific conditions.”
The bottom line: Plum Island and other research facilities across the U.S. are inadequate when faced with the increasing threat of a severe disease outbreak, such as foot-and-mouth disease or African swine fever, which over the last several months in China has led to the culling of almost 1 million pigs.
“(Foot-and-mouth) still remains one of the biggest threats to animal agriculture in the United States,” McElwain said. “And it’s not the only one.”
Drivers sometimes slow down to gawk at the massive biocontainment lab rising up at Denison and Kimball streets in Manhattan. The towering cranes and battalion of trucks cut an impressive silhouette on the hill. It’s safe to say many in this college community of 53,000 are excited by NBAF’s promise of prestige and jobs, an estimated 2,600-plus in the lab’s first 25 years.
But looming in others’ minds is fear that one of the contagious or deadly pathogens could escape — say on a football Saturday in the fall, when tens of thousands of people pack nearby Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Even after all of these years of planning and construction, critics say that health officials, law enforcement and government officials aren’t as prepared as they should be.
For example, once NBAF opens, only one infectious disease doctor will visit Manhattan’s Ascension Via Christie hospital once a week from Wichita, about two and a half hours away. Ascension Via Christie is the city’s main hospital, and has just 12 isolation rooms to hold patients who are exposed to an infectious disease.
The rooms, outfitted with specialized air filters to protect pathogenic microbes from escaping, are for “anybody with a contaminant that is airborne,” said Carolyn Koehn, the hospital’s regional director of safety and emergency response. “Right now, our primary use would be if we had a patient come in” with tuberculosis.
And NBAF researchers will study far more exotic — and toxic — diseases than TB.
Carrying a 4-inch-thick binder of emergency response strategies, Koehn said she isn’t worried. Long before Kansas was awarded NBAF, the hospital had been rehearsing coordinated exercises with local and state emergency responders.
“I have a lot of confidence in our emergency operations plan,” she said. “If we’re able to respond well to an infectious disease outbreak, we’d be able to respond very well to something at NBAF.”
An escaped virus won’t just be the hospital’s problem. Another of the first responders is likely to be the Riley County Police Department.
Chief Dennis P. Butler said his department has the highest emergency response certification of any law enforcement agency in the state, as well as having a detective on staff who is a liaison to Homeland Security and a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Butler said he’s been thoroughly briefed on NBAF, and after an exhaustive tour that he can’t talk much about due to security restrictions, he’s confident that the facility is secure.
“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “The closest thing I can (compare) this facility to was when I took a tour of a nuclear power plant.”
Just behind NBAF, there’s a wheat-colored building that houses the Kansas Department of Agriculture. That’s intentional: As part of the preparation for NBAF, Brownback moved the agency from the capital city of Topeka to Manhattan.
Justin Smith, the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinarian, said having NBAF across the street is a plus.
“(It) brings in a tremendous intellectual knowledge right out our back door as well as allowing us our response time. We’re gonna be able to walk across the parking lot and hand them samples rather than put them on a plane and ship them to Plum Island, New York,” Smith said.
The state’s ag department also takes part in statewide simulations of how to respond to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, even involving cowboys and feed-truck drivers.
It’s important not to be alarmist, said Dr. Ali Kahn, who helped establish the bioterrorism program at the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention in 1999. Still, he said, city and state officials need to make sure communities know the protocol in the event of a disease release.
“Have you made sure the individuals in the community understand what the risks are, what the pathogens are and what they should worry about if they get sick?” he said. “(Have you) had a good set of conversations with physicians and health care practitioners so you have early signals if something does happen?”
“If (NBAF officials) haven’t, then that’s not a good practice,” he added.
There’s been a small but vocal group of opponents asking the same questions as Kahn ever since the government awarded NBAF to Kansas. This loose coalition of researchers, citizens and ranchers has dwindled in an almost inverse pattern to the tangible lab.
Biologist Bill Dorsett and entomologist Sylvia Beeman were among the most active of the opposition coalition but are now resigned to living in NBAF’s shadow. Beeman wondered whether she could have had an impact if she’d only worked harder.
Dorsett believed they never had a chance, not against the twin juggernauts of government and the livestock industry: “We were pebbles in the path. We weren’t speed bumps.”
Donn Teske’s deeply ingrained in that livestock industry, raising 100 Angus cattle in Pottawatomie County, about 35 miles from Manhattan. He’s also the vice president of the National Farmers Union, an organization that pushes for environment-focused policies and often holds opposing positions to the American Farm Bureau’s more conservative views.
Teske has insisted for years that building a lab to study foot-and-mouth disease in a state where cattle vastly outnumber people is a head-scratcher.
“It just shouldn’t have been built here,” he said. “I knew it would be built with utmost care, but I’m still not convinced there won’t be any escapes. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I suspect it will.”
But as Teske’s cattle huddled against the bitter February wind, he admitted NBAF is benefiting his family in one way — at least before it opens. His 27-year-old son is helping build it.