White House Proposes Shifting Kansas Bio-Defense Lab From Homeland Security To USDA


By Laura Ziegler – Kansas News Service/KCUR

Since its inception over a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security has had authority over the $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, or NBAF, under construction on the campus of Kansas State University.

The 2019 federal budget released this week proposes transferring authority over the facility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The transfer wouldn’t happen until the facility operational, scheduled for 2022. But officials say the USDA will work closely with DHS long before the lab opens.

“USDA would begin (staffing) up the operations of NBAF by learning how to operate the facility during the commissioning process, purchasing equipment and hiring employees,” DHS spokesman John Verrico said in an email.

NBAF is to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in the Long Island Sound.  For over half a century, the lab was operated by USDA for the study of foreign animal diseases. It was the only place in the country with a large-animal bio-containment facility capable of studying live foot-and-mouth disease virus, which is highly contagious among cattle and sheep. The labs at NBAF will expand research on foot-and-mouth and have the capacity to do experiments on large numbers of livestock at one time.

In 2002, with the passage of the Homeland Security Act, authority of the lab at Plum Island was transferred to the newly- formed DHS.

Lawmakers and some officials are saying it’s too early to know the impact of placing the Plum Island’s replacement back under the oversight of USDA.

U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, whose district includes NBAF, sits on the House Agriculture and Science and Technology committees. He said he’s focused on making sure the facility is built on schedule and has adequate funding.

“While the proposal to move operational control to USDA is new, we have always expected USDA to play a major role in the research underway at the facility,” Marshall said in an email.

But one scientist who’s been intimately involved with biosecurity research says it’s a mistake to move the Level 4 bio-containment lab away from Homeland Security.

Daniel Gerstein oversaw operations at Plum Island while it was under DHS. He says Homeland Security and agriculture officials had a strong working relationship — even developing the first licensed foot-and-mouth vaccine.

But prioritizing homeland security in animal disease research may be more important today than ever, he says.

“If you had some sort of deliberate attack, you’d certainly want to have your Department of Homeland Security involved.”

Derek Nester
Derek Nester
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2021 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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