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Top-level research already at K-State

There isn’t a big gap in security between Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4 laboratory research.

That’s one of the reasons that researchers at the Level 3 Kansas State University Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, are comfortable taking on a collaboration and transition with researchers at Plum Island (N.Y.) Animal Disease Center, or PIADC.

The BRI is forming a bridge, and collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security and USDA, to help the move of top-security research from Plum Island to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, be seamless when it goes fully operational as a Level 4 lab by 2020.

“We have the ability to do some research that is not done at Plum Island,” says BRI Research Director Stephen Higgs.

Among that research, notably, is zoonotic disease, which spreads from animals to humans and vice versa, and vector research, the study of the insects or arthropods that spread disease. The BRI has been equipped with an insectary, a lab capable of studying how mosquitoes, midges and other blood-feeding insects spread diseases between animals and humans.

Until the Level 4 lab becomes operational, some deadly animal viruses, including the Hendra and Nipah viruses, will not be the subject of research in Kansas.

Key Points

• There’s not a big gap between Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4 laboratories.

• Research collaboration has already begun.

• Deadliest pathogens will await Level 4 lab opening.


Research on West Nile and Bluetongue viruses hasn’t started yet. But others, including Rift Valley fever and the avian influenza virus, are under the microscopes in the K-State lab. The idea is to find vaccine strategies that provide protection against the deadly pathogens, and to develop a protocol that can quickly protect animal and human populations against an outbreak.

“People talk about the risk of a release of a pathogen from the lab,” Higgs says. “Of far greater importance is the introduction of a pathogen from some mutation, contamination or deliberate act of terrorism, and whether or not we can respond to that crisis.”

The research work at K-State, he says, is all about developing strategies and finding vaccines to thwart zoonotic diseases, or developing treatments that can be effective in the course of an outbreak.

Introduction of diseases in a world of global trade, he says, becomes more about “when” than “if.” If a disease exists somewhere in the world and that region trades with nearby regions that trade with other regions that trade worldwide, the spread of a pathogen can happen in hours or days, not months or years.

“It is really important to know what is out there, how it spreads and to be able to study how it can be contained,” Higgs says.

Higgs says the value of a nearby laboratory to study an unknown outbreak and quickly develop containment or vaccines far outweighs the risk of an accidental release of a pathogen.

For one thing, if a pathogen escapes, he says, scientists will know what it is, what to expect and how to shut it down. In the event of a spontaneous outbreak of disease, identification is the element that takes the most time and is of the greatest concern.

“Having a research facility nearby that can make an identification and develop a vaccine far outweighs any risk of accident,” he says.

Currently, Higgs says, Plum Island does not have the ability to study zoonotic diseases, including Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus and the avian influenza virus. It also does not have the ability to study arthropod vectors.

All of that research is already under way in the BRI at K-State. “We are in full-cooperation mode with the scientists at Plum Island,” Higgs says. “We want the initiation of work to go as smoothly as possible. And we want progress to move as quickly and as safely as possible.”

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WORK UNDER WAY: Researchers at the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University are already coordinating some projects with scientists at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. A new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility is under construction at K-State to replace the Plum Island lab.

This article published in the February, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.