This USDA aerial photo shows the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Long Island.

Safety Partnership Set for Kansas Biosafety Labs

A partnership of Kansas State University and Mercy Regional Health Center will be ready by the time the BSL-4 lab opens in 2018, officials say.

Kansas State University and Mercy Regional Health Center have established a partnership that will provide medical care oversight and occupational health response plans for biosafety laboratories to be built in Manhattan, Kan. The partnership is in place for the university's Biosecurity Research Institute, a biosafety level 3 and biosafety level 3 agriculture facility, and will grow when the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a biosafety level 4 lab, opens in 2018.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will operate NBAF, a planned 500,000 square foot facility that will be the transplanted Plum Island Animal Disease Center. (PIADC is located in Greenport, N.Y. DHS says only 10 percent of NBAF's space will be used for BSL-4 research.) Research that may lead to vaccines and treatments will be done at both facilities on human and animal infectious diseases that exist naturally in the world, such as Classical Swine Fever and Rift Valley Fever. "This partnership enables K-State to perform essential biosecurity and infectious disease research in a safe environment while ensuring that everyone is prepared in the unlikely event of an accident in the lab," said the university's president, Kirk Schulz. "We appreciate Mercy's willingness to work with our researchers, an essential collaboration as K-State becomes a top research institution."

The two organizations may have released details about their partnership last week to counter a National Research Council report in November 2010 that criticized the DHS risk assessment for NBAF's operation and concluded there is nearly a 70 percent chance of a release of foot and mouth disease outside the lab during the 50-year lifetime of the facility, with an estimated potential economic impact of $9 billion to $50 billion.

Mercy's occupational health services program, led by Theresa Crubel, director and registered nurse, prepares preventative treatment while a planning team at Mercy provides preparedness. The university gives Mercy accurate, current information about pathogens being researched at the BSL-3 facility. "Mercy is very excited about the partnership we currently have with K-State, and we look forward to working with NBAF management and the Department of Homeland Security as the plans for NBAF move forward," said Mercy President/CEO John Broberg. "We will continue to work with K-State to ensure that we have prepared our physicians and staff appropriately to deal with medical and other emergency response events at NBAF."

Among the safeguards being used are these:

  • Before any pathogenic research is performed, researchers undergo a fitness test and blood work, then receive appropriate vaccinations.
  • Researchers carry wallet cards listing pathogens they are researching, infection symptoms, and what to do if they suspect an infection. They can use a 24-hour hotline to contact medical professionals if symptoms are detected.
  • Mercy's emergency services and administrative teams have toured the BSL-3 facility and are able to handle response needs in a biocontainment laboratory. The Mercy emergency staff will receive training for a BSL-4 laboratory before it opens.

According to the university, this is not the first partnership of this kind for a BSL-4 lab. A similar arrangement was made in 2005 when construction began on Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a BSL-4 laboratory in Hamilton, Mont., where the lab partnered with St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. Crubel said Mercy officials intend to visit Montana to learn from the hospital staff there.

"We're aware that we have work to do to be fully prepared for a BSL-4 facility like NBAF," Crubel said. "But we're far, far ahead because we've been able to do the BRI work. The research environment is very safe, and it is vital to perform this research. We can't progress as a society without it."

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