Politics & Government

Manhattan’s biodefense lab to ‘help protect our food supply and the nation’s public health’

From left, Sen. Pat Roberts, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Gov. Sam Brownback toss ceremonial scoops of dirt Wednesday afternoon as ground is broken at the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.
From left, Sen. Pat Roberts, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Gov. Sam Brownback toss ceremonial scoops of dirt Wednesday afternoon as ground is broken at the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan. The Wichita Eagle

MANHATTAN – The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility is more than just a big project for Kansas and Kansas State University – it will be the front line in protecting the nation’s food supply.

That was the consensus of federal and state leaders who gathered Wednesday to celebrate the start of construction on the $1.25 billion national laboratory complex that will be built across the street from Kansas State University’s football stadium.

“The NBAF laboratory will provide the nation with cutting-edge, state-of-the-art lab capabilities to help protect our food supply and the nation’s public health,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. “The NBAF addresses a serious vulnerability: biological or agricultural threats, deliberate or natural.

“We will now be able to ensure availability of vaccines and other rapid-response capabilities to curb any outbreak.”

Johnson said he learned of the project from Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran when he was doing courtesy visits with senators after he was nominated for his position in President Obama’s Cabinet.

He said his first question was “What’s an NBAF?”

But after hearing from the senators, “I went back to our office and I said to our staff, ‘Please tell me we are supporting and committed to this very important facility.’ And we are, and we will be.”

The 570,000-square-foot facility will have state-of-the-art lab facilities for studying the deadliest pathogens that can threaten crops and livestock. It will also be the spearpoint research facility for diseases that can transfer from animals to humans.

The facility is scheduled to be fully operational in 2022.

The project began in 1999 with an original cost estimate of $95 million, said Kirk Schulz, president of K-State.

The increased cost was a result of expanding the mission and hardening the buildings to withstand the strongest of tornadoes to prevent any escape of dangerous pathogens.

Roberts said the facility will be comparable to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, but for animal and crop diseases. It will replace an aging 1950s-era research facility at Plum Island, N.Y.

Roberts said that on a visit to Russia, he toured Soviet-era facilities where researchers had worked to weaponize anthrax and other pathogens that could wreak havoc with America’s food supply and public health. He said the nation still faces that threat from terrorists and rogue states.

“On my return to Washington it was obvious to me we didn’t have a first-responder plan,” he said. “The nation’s premier level-four research facility at Plum Island was severely degraded and we lacked a national strategic plan.”

He said he contacted then K-State president John Wefald and asked if the university could develop a plan for a new lab to address the problem.

“John looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘K-State has to do this,’” Roberts said.

“Today we aren’t just celebrating a groundbreaking,” Roberts said. “We are preparing to provide robust protections for the population to keep this nation and its economy safe.”

‘Only the beginning’

Moran and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hailed the project’s economic impacts.

Moran said research stemming from NBAF will add another pillar to the state’s economy to go with traditional agriculture in rural Kansas, the aviation cluster in Wichita and the service industries of the Kansas City metropolitan area.

“This facility is only the beginning, the beginning of changing our state,” he said.

He said NBAF will anchor an animal sciences corridor stretching from Manhattan to Missouri, “a place where science and research and mathematics and engineering is honored as a profession, because it can change the world.”

Vilsack said the economic effects of NBAF will go far beyond Kansas.

“When you have a facility like this, you can reassure American farmers of the capacity to deal with disease and pathogens and pests before they become a problem,” Vilsack said. “You essentially assure the American public that they’ll continue to have the most affordable food in the world.

“Now, that allows them to have the freedom with their paychecks and their salaries to pursue other opportunities: to invest, to put money aside for college, to build up bigger homes, to buy a nicer car, to put money aside for retirement – essentially to fuel this economy.”

About the only thing anyone complained about at Wednesday’s event was that it has taken so long to get to this point – 16 years from concept to groundbreaking.

NBAF was “a big fish to hook and a bigger fish to land,” said Gov. Sam Brownback. The state is contributing $300 million of the project cost.

Roberts said it was easy to get the state on board, but the federal government moved more slowly.

First, Kansas had to beat out 17 other states that wanted the project.

Then, supporters had to get the funding solidified amid an atmosphere of recessions, spending cutbacks, gridlock and government shutdowns.

Roberts said he spent a lot of time trying to sway the House to pass the funding.

Finally, “I think we convinced them of the necessity of the project,” he said.

“This is not a day too soon,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who owns a farm near Fowler. “This is just a groundbreaking. The ribbon cutting is what I’m most looking forward to.

“Until we start that research, there are folks that will still think we are vulnerable as a nation, that our food supply is not secure, so we have a long ways to go.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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