Webinar: Everything reporters need to know about a high-risk bio lab in Kansas


The USDA National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. Photo courtesy of USDA

On May 24, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. The facility will monitor and respond to biological threats involving transboundary, emerging and zoonotic animal diseases. 

The new building will also house a new biosafety level (BSL)-4 lab. BSL-4 is the scientific designation for biocontainment measures that need to be taken when lab workers are conducting research on the most dangerous and lethal pathogens, including those that are airborne and potentially untreatable.

Join my AHCJ webinar with Ambika Bumb, deputy executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense on Thursday, May 18 at 2 p.m., to learn more. 

Why this news matters 

The National Bio and Agro-Defense facility launch is happening as two important events are brewing”: labs that conduct research on lethal pathogens are under scrutiny as scientists continue to investigate whether a leak from a level-4 lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, was the origin of COVID-19 and there is an urgent and ongoing need for monitoring and responding to animal diseases, as a continuing global avian flu outbreak has killed more than 60 million farm-raised birds in the U.S.

Scientists say that right now, the avian flu virus is low-risk to humans because it isn’t causing disease that can spread between humans, but that “doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen,” David Swayne, an independent poultry veterinarian and a pathologist and former director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory told reporters at an April 26 briefing hosted by SciLine. 

Around 75%of new emerging diseases come from animals, according to the National Institutes of Health. As people and animals continually mix, viruses carried by both animals and humans hop back and forth. The pathogens can swap genes until at some point, the virus’s genetic makeup changes and adapts so that it can infect and sicken humans — this is called zoonotic “spillover.” The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed in the range of about 50 to 100 million people globally, was a spillover, likely caused by a virus that spread from birds and pigs to humans. 

The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was likely a spillover as well. The scientific consensus is that a bat probably infected another wild animal, like a raccoon dog. The dog was then captured and sold at a wet market in Wuhan, thus seeding the pandemic. However, the specific animal with the virus has yet to be identified and the Chinese government isn’t cooperating or providing results from its investigation of the market and the Wuhan lab with global health authorities. Several U.S. agencies, including the Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — say there is reason to believe that the pathogen may have escaped from the lab.

The COVID Crisis Group (formerly the Covid Commission Planning Group), comprised of 34 public health and biosecurity experts, concluded in its May 2023 book, “Lessons from the COVID War,’ that there isn’t “enough evidence available” to determine if the lab leak theory is correct or if COVID’s origin was a spillover event.

Given the controversy about COVID-19’s origin, several people living in Manhattan and surrounding areas have expressed great concern about a BSL-4 lab opening in their community. Other community members have expressed support for the project. The USDA has been conducting outreach with Manhattan leaders and local farmers to reassure them, according to this story in CODA.

Meanwhile, the avian flu isn’t going away. This past winter, egg-producing farms were hit hard by the virus, causing a spike nationwide in the price of eggs. The outbreak also is decimating endangered bird populations like bald eagles and spreading to and killing other species like sea lions. It has also, though rarely, spread to domestic animals like cats.

“It’s bringing a lot of species to the brink,” Nichola Hill, Ph.D., assistant professor of virology, disease ecology, and global health at the University of Massachusetts Boston said at the SciLine media briefing on avian flu. “I would love to see more coverage of the conservation and biodiversity implications of this current outbreak as well as the economic and the human and public health toll.”

Join my AHCJ webinar to learn more about the Kansas lab, avian flu, and Congressional action on biosecurity policy. For more insight, check out the resources below:

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