MANHATTAN (KSNT)- The National Bio Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a research lab focused on tackling biological threats, is just months away from becoming fully operational in Manhattan, Kansas.
Scientists are preparing to begin research at the state-of-the-art, BSL-4 facility, where they’ll study some of the most dangerous animal-borne diseases.
“Only after we have that approval will we actually be able to do any work. We expect that by late 2024 we should be able to have that approval, but again, things change, and we have to continue with that process as we go,” NBAF Director Alfonso Clavijo told reporters in an exclusive media gathering last week.
Kansas Capitol Bureau was one of just a few outlets invited for a rare look inside the facility, prior to an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 24.
Video and photography were limited to an auditorium in the facility, where NBAF officials fielded questions from reporters.
“The public, and especially our community here deserves to understand the public safety measures we take,” said Katie Pawlosky, NBAF Communications Director. “We have to balance everything we do with security… so there are sometimes questions we can’t answer. That’s not because we don’t want to answer them, but because we have to protect the work that’s being done here.”
BSL-4 labs handle some of the most highly infectious zoonotic diseases, like foot and mouth disease and African Swine Fever.
Security and containment are two key factors stressed by facility officials.
Everything in the 574,000 square-foot building is uniquely designed to protect from potential intruders, and to keep diseases from getting out. The steel and concrete structure can even withstand an EF-5 tornado.
“It’s all concrete: concrete floors, concrete walls,” said Carlos Rodriguez, an engineer at the facility.
Just beyond the entrance, lies an expansive water feature that leads up to the lab. According to officials, the distance created throughout the landscape of the facility is a security measure taken to protect against a potential breach.
The inside of the facility is just as complex, as it includes several levels with sections for laboratories, animal chambers, and incinerators for disposal.
According to Director Clavijo, the facility will primarily use cattle, pigs, and sheep for testing, and “occasionally” some wildlife, “if it’s needed.”
“We truly understand that this is a unique facility, a national asset, that will have the full potential, if we maintain the activities within the facility,” Clavijo said.
There are eleven 9,000-gallon “effluent decontamination tanks” play a critical role in the animal disposal process. Each tank is dedicated to a different part of the facility to avoid cross-contamination. Animal carcasses are lowered into these large pressure cookers, where all liquid waste goes.
Rodriguez said they’re working with city and state officials to follow the necessary parameters to dispose of the waste. He said it’s processed out through a man-made wastewater treatment plant.
“We’re going to kill it…it’s not going to be a problem when it leaves this facility,” Rodriguez said.
So far, 280 employees are working at the facility, but that number is expected to reach 400, according to USDA officials.
Employees working in labs with highly infectious diseases are given pressurized suits and several layers of gloves and PPE for protection. Each employee is expected to shower before coming out of containment areas; some can take as many as 19 showers a day, depending on how often they’re exposed to those areas.
“Some folks shower 2 to 3 times a day… some folks shower 19 times a day,” Rodriguez said.
Researchers will undergo a lengthy training process, which is expected to progress in stages, once the facility is given approval to operate.
Charles Lewis, veterinary medical officer at NBAF, said those stages will be “crawl, walk, jog, run.” They’ll start off working with clean animals, then gradually escalate to animals infected with high-risk diseases.
“Only when we’re confident we’re a well-oiled machine will we use high-risk agents,” Lewis said.