KSU researchers to take over Plum Island work

By Bill Felber

Kansas State University researchers are readying the university’s Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) to take over work that is ongoing at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

The Biosafety Level 3 animal disease research facility off the east coast of Long Island is preparing to be phased out by the Department of Homeland Security. It will be replaced later this decade by the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, NBAF, which is being built in Manhattan.

University officials said Thursday that while NBAF is not projected to be fully operational until 2018, much of the pathogen work at Plum Island will transition on an interim basis to the BRI at Pat Roberts Hall.

Stephen Higgs, research director at the BRI, and the associate vice president for research at the Kansas State University, spent two weeks at Plum Island in September, in part to discuss the Plum Island-BRI transition process. As part of their winning bid for the NBAF, KSU and state officials offered the BRI, a level 3 facility like Plum Island, as a temporary site for much of the Plum Island research.

“Essentially the BRI is going to be a springboard to get NBAF research going as soon as possible after it opens,” Higgs said. “As Plum Island ramps down, we are making sure that there is not a drop-off in research and training on these pathogens. That’s important because we cannot afford to have a period where there’s not work being done on these diseases should one of them happen to come to America.”

Although no definitive date has been set for when projects will begin transferring to the BRI, Higgs said that university and Manhattan-based U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are already working on some research projects related to the current disease studies at Plum Island, and are procuring the necessary approvals in order to soon begin on others—including African swine fever and high-path avian influenza.

Additionally, an insectary was recently completed at the BRI that will help its scientists work on insect-spread diseases like Rift Valley fever and blue tongue viruses. The insectary is something Plum Island is not equipped with, but may be a part of the research at NBAF.

While visiting Plum Island, Higgs also met with researchers about transboundary animal diseases, those occurring in multiple counties and capable of being carried to new ones. Higgs taught classes on Rift Valley fever virus and on mosquito-virus interactions, and gave talks on the BRI and NBAF.

“Moving these projects from Plum Island to the BRI really opens up new possibilities for infectious disease research at K-State that hasn’t been possible in the past,” Higgs said. “These are high priority pathogens of major concern because they are a threat to our agricultural system.”

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