The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) construction program remains on track for completion of all major construction activities by December 2020. The facility remains on pace for full operations in 2023. And with leading infrastructure and a capable workforce, the NBAF will be a go-to resource for scientific excellence in animal health research, diagnostics and training — all of which are necessary to fulfill mission requirements.

Last month I mentioned that the federal government began advertising job openings for NBAF to meet its immediate staffing needs. Over the near term this includes having federal staff in place at NBAF during construction to operate key systems and establish the processes that support the facility’s functions before it opens. This is important as the focus of NBAF planning pivots in the coming months and years from construction toward standing up its operations. In addition, there is a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) training program geared toward developing NBAF’s scientific and technical workforce of tomorrow.

The new NBAF Scientist Training Program, also referred to as the “NSTP” fellowship, was developed by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) to work with partner universities like K-State and establish a dedicated pipeline of future NBAF subject matter experts with skillset to support the facility’s diagnostic mission.

The NSTP fellowship offers full tuition and other supplemental support for qualified applicants seeking to complete certain advanced degree programs in targeted fields of study such as bioinformatics, diagnostics, microbiology, molecular biology and virology. In exchange for the program’s benefits, participants are expected to commit to a defined period of federal service at NBAF in their areas of expertise. (Contact USDA at NSTP@aphis.usda.gov for full program details.)

Specifically, the NSTP is designed to mature a workforce capable of supporting USDA’s Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL), which is an existing capability maintained at New York’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center whose mission will transfer to NBAF in the future. The FADDL is a reference laboratory, meaning it maintains a leading national role in conducting diagnostic testing services on certain animal disease viruses, including those that may transmit across borders, pass from animals to humans, or otherwise require high-to-maximum biocontainment.

Through the FADDL, USDA runs diagnostic tests on samples collected from livestock and animal products imported into our country. The FADDL is responsible for USDA’s maintenance of the North American Foot-and-Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank and offers training programs for veterinarians to recognize the presence of foreign animal diseases. The FADDL also serves as an international reference laboratory for foot-and-mouth disease virus, which can be deadly to livestock and cause grave damage to the economy.

These FADDL functions currently operate at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, but will transition permanently to NBAF in 2023, where the new facility will enhance the delivery of those capabilities.

Although Manhattan makes for a lovely and welcoming new home for many, the reality is that not all members of the federal diagnostic team at Plum Island will choose to leave New York for Kansas. Therefore, a program like the NSTP is necessary to ensure a pipeline of capable experts is available to fulfill NBAF’s federal staffing needs with efficiency. This has always been a planning consideration and this new training program is an early step toward ensuring a smooth transition of Plum Island’s legacy functions to NBAF.

The NSTP is the latest demonstration of the federal government’s commitment to making its vision of NBAF a reality. Now and moving forward, priorities for NBAF’s diagnostic mission are informed by USDA’s monitoring of global emerging animal health threats. Likewise, those who complete the NSTP will be key contributors in developing the diagnostic capabilities at NBAF necessary to remain adequately prepared and ultimately responsive to those threats.

Dr. Vanier is director of Partnership Development for the federal government’s NBAF Program Executive Office.

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