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New U.S. Lab Will Work With Deadly Animal Pathogens—In The Middle Of Farm Country

Virologist Robert Cross’s lab is equipped to handle some of the world’s most dangerous viruses. At the Galveston National Laboratory he has worked with guinea pigs infected with Ebola virus and macaques carrying Lassa fever. What it can’t accommodate are pigs, which are common carriers of the deadly Nipah virus. “We’re not really geared to handle large animals,” says Cross, who wears a pressurized biosafety suit for his studies. “You can’t just pick them up when you’re wearing these space suits.”

That’s one reason why Cross is welcoming tomorrow’s ceremonial opening of a massive new high-security laboratory in Kansas, the first in the United States designed with pens and equipment such as cranes to move big animals tainted with the most hazardous infectious agents, including Nipah virus. Although active research won’t begin at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan for several years, Cross predicts that “a high containment resource to deal with agriculturally important pathogens … is going to change the [research] landscape.”

The laboratory, which will be operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has taken nearly a decade longer to complete than planned and, at $1.25 billion, cost nearly three times as much as first predicted. It is also controversial. Although many researchers and powerful Kansas politicians have supported the project, some scientists, Manhattan residents, and farm groups have voiced concerns about handling pathogens dangerous to livestock and humans in the nation’s agricultural heartland. If a highly contagious animal disease escaped the lab, “it would just shut down commerce,” says Larry Kendig, a board member of the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association.

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