Editor’s Note: Barrett Slenning, an associate professor of ruminant production medicine, economics, and epidemiology at N.C. State University, has been actively involved in efforts to help North Carolina win a new federal National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility. Slenning is also the leader of the animal biosecurity risk management group at NCSU. The NBAF could be built near Butner. This article appeared originally in the BT Catalyst, which is published by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and is reprinted with permission.
RALEIGH, N.C. – Over the past two years, I’ve been part of the group working to make North Carolina the future site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF. This research center will diagnose and study animal diseases and develop new tests and vaccines for livestock. Bringing this facility to North Carolina will help protect our food supply and our economy.
I’m a veterinarian and an associate professor at North Carolina State University, and I’ve been interested in agricultural biosecurity since the mid-1990s. Then in 2001, anthrax attacks in the United States and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom showed how devastating such animal diseases could be to society.
Watching these events unfold, I realized the critical importance of rapid disease identification and response. A quick diagnosis saves lives and livelihoods. The 2001 epidemic of foot-and-mouth infected more than 2,000 farms in the U.K., and officials had to slaughter more than 9 million cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to contain the disease, causing an economic loss of around $16 billion. Rural economies were ravaged, and they are still recuperating.
Need and Opportunity
The people who study the spread of contagious diseases have known for decades that disease outbreaks demand fast action, and the USDA responded to this need by converting an old Army base into the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 1954. Unfortunately, the Plum Island complex was never designed to do certain kinds of research. I remember hearing about the need for a facility like NBAF back in the ‘80s, and Plum Island was old even then.
So I was eager, to say the least, when in January of 2006 we learned that the government wanted to build a new facility to study foreign animal diseases. The criteria for the site fit perfectly with North Carolina and our historically strong research universities, well-trained workforce and existing biotechnology industry.
A group of research advocates formed to pursue this opportunity. The College of Veterinary Medicine at NC State and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center were two of the principal members of this group, which we now call the North Carolina Consortium for NBAF. Because of the Consortium’s work and our state’s attributes, North Carolina has emerged as one of six finalists for the NBAF. The other candidate sites are in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi and Texas in addition to Plum Island.
The final decision on where to put the facility will be based, in part, on a document called the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, which discusses safety issues for each site. A preliminary version of this report was released in June. Among its 1000+ pages, the draft EIS states that the risk of accidentally releasing a pathogen is extremely low for all five locations. It also discusses in detail many other safety issues. () The final version of the report, which is due this fall, promises to improve on the draft version and address issues raised in public forums. We expect to learn by the end of 2008 whether North Carolina won the bid.
The Political Dimension
Getting to where we are today has had its ups and downs, but one of the benefits for me has been the chance to learn about our state through the eyes of the people I’ve met. In dozens of meetings and forums, I’ve talked with people from all over North Carolina. I’ve met some talented researchers, learned about our great community-college system and seen industry advancements up close.
It’s been disheartening, however, to see this opportunity become political. Some groups have latched onto misinformation and embraced half-truths in a way that is totally baffling. It’s hard to understand how people can disregard the facts. Worse, some opponents have leveled outrageous accusations with no link to reality at all.
I’m a veterinarian, not a politician, and I was surprised to see how some groups used emotional arguments to override reason and push their agenda. I know that fear is a powerful motivator, but this drumbeat of catastrophe has made it harder to discuss the sensible concerns raised during public meetings.
Information and Safety
Ensuring that the public has good information has been a challenge and a priority for everyone involved in the bid to bring this facility to North Carolina. There are risks and benefits of doing nothing, just as there are risks and benefits of building the NBAF here. We want to make sure that people have the facts needed to judge these risks and benefits for themselves. Whether the facility comes to North Carolina or not, we owe it to the people of Granville County, the region and the state to give the best information we have. And for the most part, I think we’ve done a good job of it.
At the same time, I recognize that good people on both sides of this issue believe they’re right. Opponents of the facility sometimes cite a report released in May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This report criticized the NBAF concept and the proposition that foot-and-mouth disease could be studied safely within such a facility. That conclusion was a shock to me, as the same kind of research is being done today in Canada and Australia. (In fact, the Canadian lab in Winnipeg, where U.S. samples would be sent in an emergency, is less than 50 miles from the U.S. border.)
The GAO report doesn’t tell the whole story, in my opinion. I was disappointed to find that the authors of the report misinterpreted some sources of information and misrepresented others.
Even though I don’t agree with the GAO report’s conclusions, I know that they are a source of concern for some people. Ultimately, it will be up to the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security and the GAO, to determine if the NBAF is safe to build. I think it is, and if the government agrees, then we want it to be built here.
Today, North Carolina stands in a good position as we move through the final steps of the site-selection process. On July 29, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a public meeting in Butner for North Carolinians to review the draft EIS and submit their comments. The federal government has said it will take these comments into account as it crafts the final EIS. Until that time, I hope that the community will keep an open mind about the NBAF. It is critically important from scientific, security and public-health standpoints. And there is no doubt in my mind that it would bring great opportunities and advances to our state.
For those who want more information on the project, please go to the web site of the North Carolina Consortium for the This site contains the latest news and information and has a message function that allows anyone to ask questions or make comments.