After years of environmental and safety reviews, Congress approved final funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas this year. And last week, a who's who of the power elite gathered for a ceremonial groundbreaking. Two cabinet secretaries, most of the Kansas Congressional delegation, military personnel and several state lawmakers joined the Kansas Lt. Governor and Gov. Sam Brownback, who had been wooing NBAF for more than a decade.
"NBAF is finally here!" Brownback shouted to the cheers of an ecstatic crowd.
U.S. Senator Pat Roberts had proposed the idea of making Kansas State University a hub of agro-terrorism research before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In his remarks, Roberts said the state won NBAF on its merits, and that it would have a huge impact of the state's economy.
"This lab is the realization of all we hope for," Roberts said. "(It is) opportunity ... and the preservation of our rural way of life."
For a small but vocal group of those who oppose the lab, the occasion was a sobering reminder that the project was actually going to be built, whether they were ready or not.
Local sculptor Sylvia Beeman, who is also a master-level biologist and an entomologist, says she accepts the project is coming, but isn't necessarily ready for a potential outbreak of any contagious, incurable pathogens that will be studied there.
"Just never wanting to think about the unfortunate ramifications that could happen," she says.
It was a long and hard-fought effort to win the lab, which will be the only one of its kind capable of studying exotic foreign diseases in large animals and will replace the aging facility on Plum Island off the coast of New York.
But biosecurity labs have proliferated since 9/11, and with so many labs around the country, experts worry about the difficulty of keeping all of them safe.
A report released just the day before the Manhattan groundbreaking by the GAO, the government's watchdog agency, urged federal officials to evaluate the numbers and training of government veterinarians prepared to respond to an animal disease outbreak.
Perhaps of most concern to NBAF critics: Live anthrax was mistakenly sent out of a top-security Defense Department lab to at least 51 other labs in 17 states earlier this year. After a similar mistake last year at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention an editorial in the journal Nature warned, “If an accident can happen at the CDC, then it can happen anywhere.
Then the question becomes, how can Manhattan prepare?
Brenda Nickel with the health department in Riley County, where NBAF is located, says they routinely do "table-top" exercises — mock disasters — to define best practices for how to respond to real disasters. And while local officials may not be specifically trained in the lethal diseases studied at NBAF, she's confident information about them is readily available.
"I would say that any of the health providers may not have expertise in those areas, but we have multiple resources at the click of a computer mouse," she says.
But it’s not easy to find evidence that Manhattan is prepared for the potentially catastrophic results of an accident or terrorist event at NBAF.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment website thoroughly addresses many common infectious diseases, but not the exotic ones NBAF will study. There’s a substantial section on Ebola, for example, but scientists at NBAF most likely will not be researching it. An online search of infectious disease doctors in Manhattan reveals the name of just one.
KCUR's efforts to talk to someone at the main hospital – Via Christi — about its response plans resulted in multiple conversations and emails, but the hospital was ultimately unable to provide a spokesperson for comment.
Brad Fenwick, a Washington D.C.-based doctor of both veterinary medicine and comparative pathology and a leader in biosecurity research, says when designing a response plan for a possible outbreak, it’s imperative the process be transparent, the public be aware, and everyone be prepared for the worst possible situation.
"For example, if there is a release … Manhattan will likely be quarantined," he says. "Roadblocks on I-70 and all the associated roads coming in, with state troopers there. So imagine a football weekend, kids in the dorms, no families in, no people out. That’s the worst-case scenario with this type of thing."
NBAF opponent Sylvia Beeman says that, over the years, she’s gone to the Department of Homeland Security public hearings and met with state and university officials for assurances they are on top of this kind of potential catastrophe. Most recently, she talked to city officials.
"I wanted the city to think about (how) they had a responsibility to our community and not just put their blind faith in someone else taking care of us," she says. "And they seemed very interested in hearing what I had to say and they told me to come back in five years and remind them."
To be fair, federal officials say the lab will be under construction for five years. Then, in 2020, they plan to spend at least two years developing the protocols for what to do in the event that dangerous pathogens are released.
The NBAF is scheduled begin research in 2022.