The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) program participated in an animal disease emergency response exercise led by the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA). This four-day event, called "AfterBurn," took place Dec. 19-22, 2016 in Kansas. AfterBurn was designed by KDA to assess and refine its response plan and response capabilities in the event of an outbreak of a catastrophic animal disease. The event involved more than 200 individuals from the federal government, multiple state and local government entities, as well as academia and industry.
NBAF is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) newest laboratory. The $1.25 billion dollar facility is also the federal government’s largest infrastructure project in support of bio and agro-defense and construction is well underway. Planned to be operational in 2023, NBAF will enhance the ability to study foreign animal, emerging and zoonotic diseases that threaten U.S. animal agriculture and public health. NBAF will provide crucial capabilities that enable research of transboundary livestock diseases, streamline development of vaccines and other countermeasures, and train veterinarians for better preparedness and response.
NBAF Partnership Development Director, Dr. Marty Vanier, participated in the exercise and represented the NBAF program as an attendee observer. Vanier joined colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a key partner with DHS in developing the facility's diagnostic programs and will be responsible for early detection and diagnosis activities. The exercise was an early opportunity for the NBAF program to observe a simulated full-scale emergency response to allow its planners to envision how the facility might serve a crucial role in response and recovery.
"It was both elaborate and complex and was handled in a way that should inspire confidence," said Vanier. “It was easy to see how NBAF will be a key capability in the diagnostic response and recovery phases.”
The exercise scenario simulated an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) amidst a hypothetical ice storm in southeast Kansas. A highly contagious infectious disease, FMD can decimate populations of cloven-hooved animals like cattle, swine, and sheep, among others and can spread rapidly across borders. The disease has catastrophic implications for animal agriculture, which is the largest economic driver in Kansas. A recent estimate of the projected impact of an FMD outbreak over eight Midwestern states suggests livestock producer, consumer, and government losses could reach nearly $200 billion. The last outbreak of FMD in the U.S. occurred in California in 1929.
During the exercise, livestock producers worked with state officials to describe the processes and procedures they would undertake during the outbreak to execute the state's response plan. In addition to KDA, the state’s emergency management division was activated along with operations centers across three counties. FAD diagnosticians went to the site of the simulated outbreaks to collect samples, which were sent to the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for diagnostic testing. Likewise, a crisis communications office was stood up to provide a scenario-based communications response capability.
“Responding to a foreign animal disease event would require significant cooperation between local, state and federal government, and our collaboration with DHS and USDA is important as Kansas continues to develop our emergency response plan,” said Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey. “Working together in an active exercise has allowed us to play out the procedures that will be critical to effectively managing an outbreak and we highly value NBAF’s commitment to locating here in Kansas, which will significantly improve our ability to be the best prepared state in the country in our animal disease response.”
NBAF’s state-of-the-art laboratory space, including its Biosafety Level-4 space for large animals, will offer America the best capabilities available for diagnosing the presence of catastrophic disease in large animals, said Vanier. For NBAF to be most effective on day one, NBAF's planners must identify and examine the ways in which the facility should fit within an integrated emergency response system, she explained.
The AfterBurn was part of the state's five year strategic plan to better prepare for animal disease emergencies and catastrophic events that may threaten the state's economic vitality. Taking part helped all parties understand what is involved in a worst-case-scenario. Participation in the exercise also positions the S&T to make a seamless transition of the animal disease response and recovery mission from Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) to NBAF once the partially completed facility is fully operational in 2022. PIADC is currently the only federal laboratory in the U.S. permitted to work with live FMD.
“There's a great deal of information to parcel out and analyze. I'm sure there will be terrific insights to help all parties involved strengthen their individual response capabilities,” said Vanier. “We learned many valuable lessons here about emergency response processes, procedures, and possible gaps that will enhance NBAF planning,” she said.
KDA has indicated that it will continue to conduct exercises of this nature in the future.