Scientific research and technological advances have helped societies progress in ways that our early ancestors would never have imagined. The new vaccines in recent news are evidence that basic research is integral to creating new disease countermeasures.
The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, will conduct similar work to help defend against transboundary animal diseases. The timeline for starting that work in Manhattan has been reviewed due to disruptions caused by the pandemic. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate, or DHS S&T, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, have collaborated to realign the schedule.
The facility’s construction is now projected to be substantially complete by October 2021 and the transition of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center mission to NBAF is expected by December 2023 — a four-month delay from the original schedule. This realignment provides an opportunity to include necessary technology upgrades in the facility — identified since the design was completed in 2012 — and install USDA-funded equipment as part of the substantially complete milestone. This will minimize further delays to the program.
One aspect has remained clear through all this: When NBAF is fully operational, it will be a U.S. asset in the response to emerging animal diseases. Approximately 70% of all newly discovered diseases in the last decade appear to have an animal component and are classified as zoonotic — transmittable from animals to humans.
NBAF will not develop human vaccines but by keeping our livestock healthy, we will protect the U.S. food supply, economy and those who care for animals. NBAF’s focus on research, diagnostics, training, and developing animal vaccines and other countermeasures will help mitigate and prevent emerging, transboundary and zoonotic diseases. The first of its kind in the U.S., the facility will have biosafety level-2, -3 and -4 capabilities for basic and applied research to counter these diseases in large livestock. We currently depend on other countries’ facilities for the highest level of biosafety work.
Before any of NBAF’s scientists can proceed with innovative research to accomplish our mission, we must establish integral support services. Heather Knox, NBAF’s support services supervisor, says that’s where her team comes in; it’s the backbone and heart of the facility supply chain. NBAF’s support services unit is composed of two sections: transshipping and lab support services.
Transshipping handles everything coming in and going out of the facility including day-to-day needs and lab-specific items such as glassware or clean clothing for containment. Diagnostic samples submitted for testing to rule out transboundary animal issues will also come through transshipping.
Where transshipping’s responsibilities stop, lab support services picks up inside the facility. This group receives all supplies and deliveries from transshipping and is responsible for getting them to the appropriate lab. The section is further broken down into two teams: one that works inside containment and one that works across the rest of the facility. These teams will work together to stock and clean the labs and ensure that laundry and solid waste are delivered for proper processing and decontamination before leaving containment.
Liquid waste has a slightly different but equally effective route for decontamination, which is performed by another vital team — facilities. Inside containment, NBAF will have a liquid effluent decontamination system that uses high pressure and high heat to decontaminate any liquid waste coming out of a lab. The liquid then goes through a wastewater pretreatment processing facility on NBAF’s campus. Since it is already decontaminated, this role serves to condition the wastewater before leaving the facility.
After these processes are complete, all liquid and solid waste is verified to no longer contain pathogens before it leaves containment. As NBAF Coordinator Ken Burton has said frequently, “We kill the pathogens, then we kill them again and sometimes kill them a third time.”
As part of NBAF’s efforts to be environmentally friendly, we plan to keep much of that liquid — called grey water or non-potable water — on campus to water the landscape. Again, this water has been through several steps of decontamination and conditioning until it is comparable to rainwater. If there is runoff, it will go to the sewer system, which is overseen by the City of Manhattan and put through their usual decontamination processes.
A highly functional team and supportive community are critical to accomplishing our mission of protecting our nation’s livestock, food supply and public health from animal diseases. We appreciate everyone’s contributions, which help us build a culture that is tight-knit, safe and secure.
Anyone interested in becoming part of our team should create an account on the USAJobs.gov website. We continue searching for qualified candidates for a broad range of positions and abilities.
As we close out a very interesting and challenging year, we have accomplished so much in the face of adversity. Sure, there will be challenges in 2021, but I know America’s perseverance and collaborative innovation will continue to solve world problems. I am excited that NBAF will soon be a part of those solutions.
Katie Pawlosky is the communications director for NBAF.