Kansas wins $450 million biolab

Published 24 January 2009

Kansas State University outlasted four other competitors to win the $450 million DHS National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility

The decision has been made: DHS said Monday that the $450 million National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would be built on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, confirming the department’s own preliminary decision reached last month. The million project — the building of the facility is expected to last four years and require 1,500 construction jobs — would replace an aging facility on Plum Island, New York. Once completed, the new facility would be expected to employ 300 people, with an annual payroll of up to $30 million.

The project, as envisioned, would be used primarily to protect against animal diseases by conducting research on deadly pathogens such as foot and mouth disease, Rift Valley fever, and Hendra and Nipah viruses. “With this new lab, Kansas will cement its reputation as the nation’s leader in plant and animal health research and the biosciences,” said Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), in a statement released Monday evening. “We will reap the benefits of a cutting-edge industry while protecting the nation’s food supply and agricultural economy for years to come. Kansans can be very proud. This is a historic day.”

Kansas outlasted intense competition from other states, including finalists in Flora, Mississippi; Athens, Georgia; Butner, North Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas.

Lawrence Journal World’s  Mark Fagan reports that Kansas officials long touted the state’s strength in animal sciences, including an existing federal lab at K-State that could be used to address the nation’s needs during construction of the new lab. The state also has approved $105 million in bonds for the project. “We can really be proud of our teamwork to prove that Kansas is the best home for this laboratory based on the merits,” Roberts said. “We had a unity of effort from the federal to the local level, across parties, with private partners and community leaders to bring this tremendous opportunity to the people of Kansas.”

USA Today’s Jeff Martin reports that concerns that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on the U.S. mainland could devastate the nation’s food supply have not gone away. A May 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted the safety aspects of an island location for the research (although neighbors of Plum Island were not reassured; see memo by Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, discussed in 8 September 2008 HS Daily Wire). The virus can spread from infected animals being studied to healthy ones by contaminated vehicles, shoes or clothing, or it could be carried in the wind, according to the GAO. “If accidentally released, these pathogens could cause catastrophic economic losses in the agricultural sector,” the report states.

Some residents are concerned about the lab, too. “I think putting it out here in the midst of our cattle, a major food source for our country, is not a good idea,” says Antoinette Satterfield, a librarian at Kansas State, who stressed these are her personal views, not the university’s. “The risk of release is extremely low,” Kudwa says. Since animal research began on the island in the mid-1950s, there have been advances in technology that will allow scientists to do their research safely in the new lab, she says.

Adequate funding is key to the safe operation of such a lab, says James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. Ralph Richardson, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State, says the lab can be operated safely. “This country is in great need of a modern laboratory for animal diseases,” Richardson says.