The USDA will operate the new $1.25 billion biosafety level-4 laboratories the federal government is building in Manhattan, KS. A biosafety level 4 laboratory provides the highest level of containment facilities to isolate the most dangerous biological agents, meaning those with high fatality rates and no known treatments, such as the Ebola virus.
The new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) will replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), which since 1954 has defended against the accidental or intentional introduction of foreign animal diseases.
The mysterious Plum Island, which has been off-limits to the public for more than a century, will have a new future most likely as a nature preserve and historical site.
All of these moves have been in the works since shortly after 9/11, but are now coming together in relatively short order.
Last week the departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture inked an agreement. Homeland will remain responsible for completing the construction and commissioning of the new biosafety level-4 lab in Kansas. The USDA will own and operate the facility when it is completed and is accountable for operational planning in the meantime.
Construction is on schedule for a December 2020 completion, with commissioning set for the May 2021 when USDA gets the title to the facility. It is expected to be fully operational in December 2022. PIADC will continue to operate until the mission transitions to the NBAF in 2023.
“NBAF will be the first facility in the United States with maximum biocontainment, BSL-4 labs, where we can develop vaccines and diagnostics for high-consequence animal diseases–including those that can also affect human health,” said Greg Ibach, USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
Scott Hutchins, USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics, said: “all security starts with food security.” Planning for NBAF began in 2006, and the National Academies of Science reviewed the design in 2012, finding it provides the “ideal functionality” to address the mission needs.
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has Plum Island listed for sale “no sooner than 2023.”
“Plum Island is a fully self-sufficient property comprised of buildings, industrial facilities, and equipment, roadways, utilities, specialized facilities, easements and rights of way,” GSA’s listing says. “Additional assets on Plum Island include some undeveloped natural land, the Plum Island Lighthouse constructed in 1869, and buildings and structures associated with the former Fort Terry. ”
New York and Connecticut politicians at both state and federal levels have been trying to block the sale and prevent Plum Island from development. They want to limit its future use to a nature preserve with a historical site. A 1,500-foot protective border, measured from the mean sea level is in the works by New York State.
After 9/11, Plum Island no longer seemed like a good location for research on dangerous disease agents. And it was said to be “costly to maintain.”
The Army’s Fort Terry was located on Plum Island not long after the island’s lighthouse went up in 1869. Fort Terry provided coastal defense through the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II.
Sometime after World War II, the Army got into the biological warfare business on Plum Island. The USDA took over biological research on the island in 1954 and ran it until 2003 when Homeland Security took over.
That transfer came after GAO reported on pathogens “an adversary” might steal from Plum Island for use against “people or animals in the United States.” Also, there were reports of terrorists with Plum Island files being captured overseas by U.S. operatives.
When the USDA took over the original animal biological warfare mission at Fort Terry, the purpose was changed to “defensive” only research and limited to foot and mouth disease and rinderpest, an infectious disease of ruminants, especially cattle, caused by a paramyxovirus. It is characterized by fever, dysentery, and inflammation of the mucous membranes.
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