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White House Proposes Shifting Kansas Bio-Defense Lab From Homeland Security To USDA

Diseases that pose a threat to livestock will be studied at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, Kan.
Harvest Public Media
Diseases that pose a threat to livestock will be studied at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, Kan.

Since its inception over a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security has had authority over the $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, or NBAF, under construction on the campus of Kansas State University.

The 2019 federal budget released this week proposes transferring authority over the facility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The transfer wouldn’t happen until the facility operational, scheduled for 2022. But officials say the USDA will work closely with DHS long before the lab opens.

“USDA would begin (staffing) up the operations of NBAF by learning how to operate the facility during the commissioning process, purchasing equipment and hiring employees,” DHS spokesman John Verrico said in an email.

NBAF is to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in the Long Island Sound.  For over half a century, the lab was operated by USDA for the study of foreign animal diseases. It was the only place in the country with a large-animal bio-containment facility capable of studying live foot-and-mouth disease virus, which is highly contagious among cattle and sheep. The labs at NBAF will expand research on foot-and-mouth and have the capacity to do experiments on large numbers of livestock at one time.

In 2002, with the passage of the Homeland Security Act, authority of the lab at Plum Island was transferred to the newly- formed DHS.

Lawmakers and some officials are saying it’s too early to know the impact of placing the Plum Island's replacement back under the oversight of USDA.

U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, whose district includes NBAF, sits on the House Agriculture and Science and Technology committees. He said he’s focused on making sure the facility is built on schedule and has adequate funding.

“While the proposal to move operational control to USDA is new, we have always expected USDA to play a major role in the research underway at the facility,” Marshall said in an email.

But one scientist who’s been intimately involved with biosecurity research says it’s a mistake to move the Level 4 bio-containment lab away from Homeland Security.

Daniel Gerstein oversaw operations at Plum Island while it was under DHS. He says Homeland Security and agriculture officials had a strong working relationship — even developing the first licensed foot-and-mouth vaccine.

But prioritizing homeland security in animal disease research may be more important today than ever, he says.

“If you had some sort of deliberate attack, you’d certainly want to have your Department of Homeland Security involved.”

Copyright 2018 KCUR 89.3

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.