Expert Report

Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs for Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options (2012)

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Outbreaks of animal disease can have catastrophic repercussions for animal agriculture, the food supply, and public health. Rapid detection, diagnosis and response, as well as development of new vaccines, are central to mitigating the impact of disease outbreaks. The proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) is a next-generation laboratory for animal disease diagnostics, training, and research that would provide core critical components for defense against foreign animal and zoonotic disease threats. But it will be a major investment with estimated construction costs of $1.14 billion, as currently designed. This report discusses the laboratory infrastructure needed to effectively address the threat posed by animal and zoonotic diseases and analyzes three options for creating this infrastructure: building NBAF as currently designed, building a scaled-back version of the NBAF, or maintaining current research capabilities at Plum Island Animal Disease Center while leveraging biosafety level-4 large animal capabilities at foreign laboratories.

Key Messages

  • Adequate protection of animal agriculture and public health will require an integrated system of human and physical assets that spans authorities, geography, and many programs and activities. This comprehensive system includes the ability to effectively detect disease outbreaks through surveillance and diagnostics, as well as the capacity to respond and recover from a disease occurrence. Research and development to better understand diseases of concern, develop accurate diagnostic tests, and create appropriate treatments, along with workforce training, are critical core components that support this system.
  • To accomplish the goals of this integrated system, the laboratory infrastructure would need to include biocontainment facilities with biosafety levels ranging from biosafety level 1 through biosafety level 4, which would allow research to be conducted on a broad range of laboratory and agricultural animals from mice and rabbits to livestock such as cattle, pigs, and horses.
  • A substantial number of high-biocontainment laboratories (biosafety level 3 or 4) have been constructed in the United States over the past 10 years by federal and state agencies, universities, and private companies, but biosafety level 3 laboratories that can accommodate agricultural animals such as cattle and swine are still insufficient to meet all needs for animal disease research. Animal biosafety level 3 facilities at Plum Island are dated and increasingly cost-inefficient, and although there are several biosafety level 4 laboratories in the United States, these laboratories do not have the capacity to handle large animals.
  • A small number of animal biosafety level 4 facilities with large-animal capacity exist outside the United States, and may be willing to collaborate with U.S. scientists to investigate pathogens that require biosafety level 4 containment; however, their primary responsibility is to address their own national government and domestic needs. Thus, it is imperative to build a facility in the United States that is capable of working with agricultural animals at biosafety level 4 containment.
  • As currently designed, the NBAF facility includes all components of the ideal laboratory infrastructure in a single place, eliminating the need to move specimens or materials to or from other locations, and meets current and anticipated future mission needs of the federal agencies that are responsible for protecting U.S. agriculture. However, there are substantial costs associated with the construction, operation, and management of the proposed facility. The system does not leverage other existing investments in high-biocontainment laboratory, diagnostic, training, and vaccine development in the United States, and therefore could duplicate these resources.
  • Several components of the NBAF could be reduced in size or scope by developing partnerships with other U.S. and international entities to supplement NBAF capacity. This supplementation could include most critical core components of the proposed facility, except research on foot-and-mouth disease virus and large animal work at animal biosafety level 4. This option would have lower construction costs, and might also have lower sustained operations costs, but the actual cost implications need further examination. It would also make more efficient use of recently expanded high biocontainment laboratory capacity within the United States.
  • Plum Island Animal Disease Center is the only U.S. facility for research, diagnostics and training related to foot-and-mouth disease. However, the facility is aging and there are substantial costs associated with maintaining and operating the facility over the long term. Plum Island Animal Disease Center does not meet current standards for high-containment laboratories, and lacks biosafety level 4 facilities. Agreements with foreign partners and funding for collaborations would be needed, and access to biosafety level 4 with large animal space could be limited in times of critical need.
  • Because foot-and-mouth disease research remains critical for the U.S. animal health system, it will be essential to continue to support the Plum Island facility until an alternative facility is authorized, constructed, commissioned, and approved for work on foot-and-mouth virus.
  • Regardless of the options considered for a central facility, the committee recommends that the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Agriculture develop and implement an integrated national strategy that utilizes a distributed system to address foreign animal and zoonotic disease threats.