Construction at the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility has now completed.
The estimated $1.25 billion project has been in the works for over a decade, with sitework starting in 2010 and construction officially commencing in 2013. Kansas was named as the location for the biosafety level-4 [BSL-4] laboratory in late 2008, which will replace the circa 1954 Plum Island Animal Research Center in New York as the United States’ premier animal disease research installation.
NBAF Deputy Director Dr. Ken Burton was among guests from the federal facility to join KMAN Thursday for their regular update on the In Focus podcast. Having made it through some delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, work has shifted from construction into commissioning the building and ensuring critical systems and components are functional.
“That’ll continue into the Summer.”
Burton says as part of commissioning, NBAF will also be undergoing interdependency testing of failsafes in the event of a failure of multiple systems. Following that, USDA will enter 60 days of its own testing to make sure all systems are working and cooperating as intended.
“After all that, […] our goal-line that we’ve been working towards now for so many years — USDA will become fully responsible for the operations of NBAF and actually take ownership of the facility,” Burton says. “Pretty exciting times, we’re starting to see the definite light at the end of the tunnel.”
When first planned, the facility was going to be under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security before 2020. In January of that year, the two governmental organizations signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in the facility while transferring full ownership and operation to the USDA given its focus on agricultural science and research.
With construction wrapped at NBAF, things are beginning to get more lively at the Kansas State-adjacent installation as well.
NBAF Communications Director Katie Pawlosky says 85 percent of employees budgeted to support their operational units have been hired, and the parking lot is looking fuller than its ever been.
“We did complete our phased return to the physical workplace last week,” says Pawlosky. “It’s great to just see more smiling faces around the building [and]get to re-meet some people that we haven’t seen for a couple of years and then really get to meet in-person the folks that we’ve been working with the last couple of years.”
As the research facility enters commissioning, Pawlosky says hiring continues for the facility’s science teams. She says while numerous have made the transition to the Midwest, more than a hundred more employees are anticipated over the next couple years to join those working in Manhattan.
“Hiring and onboarding definitely continues,” she says. “NBAF will eventually have more than 400 full-time employees here.”
Among those working at NBAF will be those involved in the Animal Resource Unit. NBAF’s ARU includes of 20 employees who will be tasked with sourcing and caring for research animals ranging from livestock down to lab mice. That includes creating enrichment programs and living conditions that allow as natural a life for the specially bred research animals as possible.
Unit Lead Dr. Maggie Behnke tells KMAN the animals on-site will depend on the research of the day, and that work remains to be completed before any animals can enter the facility.
“The IACUC [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee], they’ve got to visit and approve all of the spaces,” says Behnke. “So it’s not only just the projects, but they actually walk around and look at all the spaces and the rooms, and look at our feed and bedding, and then review all of the programs we’ve built.
“So we cannot move any animals to NBAF until that committee is satisfied and approves it.”
The IACUC Behnke referenced is a local group of scientists, health and safety experts and community members tasked with overseeing NBAF research and programs to ensure animal welfare laws and guidelines are followed.
“I want to emphasize that local piece,” she says. “Because we really do have folks with a stake in the community, not just a stake in NBAF, that serve on that committee and that’s really important.”
After the committee and other inspectors from USDA give the greenlight, Behnke anticipates they’ll begin sourcing animals for research by the end of 2022.