FAD research moves west to new facility

FAD research moves west to new facility

Q&A with Alfonso Clavijo, National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility director on security, purpose.

Since 1954, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has served as the nation's premier defense against accidental or intentional introduction of foreign animal diseases. Based in Orient, N.Y., the PIADC is the only laboratory in the nation that can work with live foot-and-mouth disease virus. However, in 2023, that will all change as the USDA's research in high-consequence zoonotic diseases — not only FMD but also African swine fever — will move west.

The USDA National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility will be the first laboratory in the United States with maximum biocontainment (BSL-4) space to study high-consequence foreign animal diseases in livestock. Located in Manhattan, Kan., the NBAF will also feature a Biologics Development Module for the pilot scale development of vaccines and other countermeasures that will prepare and protect U.S. animal agriculture by augmenting laboratory research and accelerating technology transfer to the livestock industry. 

Construction activities are underway, facility commissioning is currently scheduled to be completed in 2021, and the facility is scheduled to be fully operational in December 2022. Current operations at the PIADC will continue until the mission is transitioned to the NBAF in 2023.

While animal disease prevention and preparedness programs are key components to help safeguard the nation's economy, food supply and the public, the new location does raise some questions. Alfonso Clavijo, Ph.D. and the NBAF director, tackled some of those questions during a recent National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research Lunch~N~Learn webinar.

For example, in 2007 a small FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom was linked to a security breach at the Pirbright Institute. Coming from an isolated facility off the coast of New York to the heartland of America surrounded by intensive livestock production, how will the NBAF ensure safety when working with these highly pathogenic organisms?

"The Pirbright lab was an old facility in 2007. There are many things we didn't know 60 years ago regarding biocontainment engineering," says Clavijo. "Today the technology has exploded, including airflow and engineering controls, biosecurity and in biocontainment. This facility is one of a kind and has the highest level of engineering to ensure biocontainment."

Clavijo says managing potential risks associated with the NBAF is important for safely handling and containing infectious agents. There are three components to the high-containment facility that will ensure the pathogens will stay contained: 1) the facility itself, 2) the personal protection and equipment used to prevent unintentional exposure and 3) processes for preventing loss and intentional misuse of biohazardous materials. These elements plus the facility's employees and workplace culture are critical components considered as we move forward.

"The understanding of all aspects of biorisk within the building is important to ensure we maintain the highest standards of operations," Clavijo says.

Historically, high-containment labs across the globe were built in remote areas, but now with advances in biocontainment technology this is not the case and more recently, high-containment laboratories are built in highly populated areas. Clavijo says it is now more common to see facilities with these new biosafety technologies in city limits.

Now located in "tornado alley," what backup measures will be in place at the NBAF to keep air systems working should a severe weather event take out a power grid for example?

"There were no shortcomings in how this facility was designed," Clavijo says. "We have all the testing, all the engineering to maintain containment if we have an F5."

In the case of a tornado, the facility's biocontainment areas are designed to a standard, like that applied in the nuclear industry for structural and containment integrity. All recommendations identified in prior risk assessments were incorporated into the NBAF design.

"We should be able to maintain the pressure differential inside the facility in order to ensure containment. All the labs are a box within a box, so the highest containment is on the inside of the facility," Clavijo says. "You might lose some of the office spaces and might potentially have some broken windows, but it will still contain the airflow inside the containment area."

If there were any sort of directives where the facility may be asked to work on new emerging diseases, would the NBAF be able to pivot quickly to address situations, such as COVID-19 that we're facing right now?

"As a nation, we need to work more closely with public health organizations and develop a 'One Health' approach to address health issues," Clavijo says. "We need to understand the importance of the animal, human interface. We need to work very closely with the public health laboratories, like the CDC, in order to fully address public health. NBAF will have a very important role to play there, because we understand that 75% of emerging diseases might come from animals. We will need to rapidly identify many of the emerging diseases and study how they develop. We need to develop animal models that can be used in the future for the development of diagnostics and vaccines that can be put into use very quickly."

The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for completing construction and commissioning of the $1.25 billion facility before transferring operations to the USDA, estimates construction of the NBAF has been delayed by at least 2 ½ months because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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