The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) to address animal diseases which may infect people. Following a 2017 executive order regarding efficiency of government programs, DHS is transferring ownership of this facility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which will use it for research and vaccine development.
The facility is to house state-of-the-art laboratories for research on foreign animal diseases—diseases not known to be present in the United States—that could infect U.S livestock and, in some cases, people. Construction is expected to cost about $1.25 billion. The facility is to be ready in December 2022 but COVID-19 may cause delays.
The foreign animal diseases already planned to be studied at the new facility are African swine fever, classical swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease. The zoonotic diseases planned for study are Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis, Nipah virus, and Rift Valley fever.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that the two agencies are following practices for a successful transfer. For example, USDA is collaborating with the intelligence community and other stakeholders to define the facility’s mission and is identifying and addressing staffing needs.
However the watchdog says critical steps remain, including obtaining approvals to work with high-consequence pathogens such as foot-and-mouth disease, and physically transferring pathogens to the facility.
DHS estimates that construction of NBAF has been delayed by at least 2.5 months because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA officials stated that, until the full effects of delays to construction are known, USDA cannot fully assess the effects on its efforts to prepare for the facility’s operation. In addition, USDA’s planning efforts were delayed before the pandemic for the Biologics Development Module—a laboratory at NBAF intended to enhance and expedite the transition of vaccines and other countermeasures from research to commercial viability. A November 2018 schedule called for USDA to develop the business model and operating plan for the module in 2019. Officials stated in May 2020 that USDA intends to develop the business model and operating plan by fiscal year 2020’s end.