Putting the top level animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. has raised concerns about safety to people and livestock. What if a tornado hit the lab on Kansas State University's campus?
What if an accidental leak occurs resulting in the spread of highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease to pigs and cattle in the area and beyond? The disease also affects sheep, goats and deer.
Jerry Jaax, who has spent decades researching the areas that the Manhattan lab will handle, has heard all of those concerns and more. "Those are legitimate questions," said Jaax, a veterinarian and Kansas State's associate vice president for research and compliance.
Jaxx is very confident the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, will be secure. "I would live in a tent next to the place and not feel threatened or unsafe," Jaax said.
A retired Army colonel, Jaax spent nearly a decade as the chief of the veterinary medicine division at the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. "That's where they work with the worst of the worst," said Jaax, who grew up on a farm near Conway Springs.
Jaxx was involved in helping bring the biodefense facility to Manhattan and has remained in the loop of the lab's development. When the lab is completed, Jaax said, "It'll be the most technological and advanced biocontainment facility in the world."
Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, director of Kansas Homeland Security, said he is impressed with the work of the facility's designers. "I would equate their competence at the comprehensive level of security to what we had at the nuclear plant at Wolf Creek," Bunting said.
But the lab has its critics. Tom Manney, chairman of the group No NBAF in Kansas and a retired Kansas State biophysics professor, has said the lab's safety has been "so oversold." Congress recently insisted that the Department of Homeland Security conduct a risk assessment before giving its final approval to the project.
An independent group has been contracted and has already begun the work, Jaax said. The assessment is expected to be completed by late summer, about the time construction is also set to begin on the $450 million, 520,000-square-foot facility, which will replace the aging lab on Plum Island, N.Y.
"This is potentially the validation that it hasn't been built on a fault line, (and will address) the concerns about adverse weather - the whole Dorothy thing," Jaax said. "It will look at whether there are ample utilities to support the backup systems, whether there are known terrorist groups in the community that would pose a risk to the facility."
He said there would be some risk for any facility no matter where it was located, adding that the issue is whether any theoretical risk can be mitigated. "I'm convinced there won't be any show-stoppers," Jaax said.
The research lab will only deal with diseases as they relate to agriculture, and foot-and-mouth disease will be the facility's primary target. There isn't a vaccine that will handle its seven variations and numerous sub-strains, Jaax said.
He said it has been estimated that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth could have a $200 billion impact on the U.S. economy. Cattle and swine exports would most likely cease.
There hasn't been a reported case of foot-and-mouth in the United States since 1929 and none in North America since one in 1953.
The research lab isn't scheduled to be completed until 2015. "And that's the best-case scenario," Jaax said. "If we can find the vaccine (for foot-and-mouth) before then, that would be great."
Source: Kansas State University