|By ANN HINCH
SOMERSET, Ky. — Within a few months, this small city in southeastern Kentucky could be a contender for a new $451 million National Bio and Agri-Defense research lab funded through the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
A consortium of universities, business and government in Kentucky and Tennessee are helping prepare an “expression of interest” to bring the lab to a spot of ground northeast of Somerset, due to DHS by the end of March.
DHS officials should select a site somewhere in the United States next year, with three-year construction slated to begin in 2009. “No matter where it’s located in the United States, it’s intended to serve the entire nation,” explained Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.
Getting it here, however, is the local preference. Besides UT, the applying consortium includes regional development groups as well as the National Institute for Hometown Security (NIHS), the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and the Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
Blackwell said UT and ORNL are interested because having the lab so close – about 140 miles away – may boost their chances of receiving research grants. The school might also be able to work with the lab in the same way it is currently a research partner with ORNL.
Zoonotic research – the study of diseases which can make the jump from animal to human – will be the lab’s primary purpose, Blackwell said, especially the highest-rated infectious agents classified as BSL-4 (bio-safety level). These include pathogens, which pose a risk of life-threatening disease and have no vaccine or antibody.
The oft-cited avian influenza and West Nile Virus are examples of current zoonotic agents. A historical one would be the bubonic plague, or Black Death bacterium, that wiped out one-third of Europe’s population in the 14th century.
“All along, we have been affected by zoonotic agents,” Blackwell added. “That’s not a new issue at all.”
What is different, compared to nearly 700 years ago, is the globalization of movement, trade – and terrorism. While the new lab is intended to develop antibodies to naturally occurring pathogens, which could infect U.S. people and livestock – including some affecting only humans or only animals, its higher purpose may be to anticipate the ways such agents can be turned against the United States by enemies.
Some pathogens can also develop more widely in their natural form. Blackwell pointed to news reports of avian flu and death in cats. “That’s not too many steps away from the ‘main’ mammal, if you consider humans more important than cats,” he said.
According to the NHIS and U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the new lab will employ 410 when it is finished in 2012, more than half will be researchers, and should create more than $30 million in payroll and about $4 million state and local taxes annually. This is in addition to jobs created by its construction.
“Hal Rogers is extremely excited about this, and he’s placing the highest priority on it,” said Gary Huddleston of Kentucky Farm Bureau. Rogers represents the Fifth District, in which the proposed 150-acre tract in Pulaski County is located.
With recent cuts in tobacco production and earning potential for many farmers, Huddleston said livestock has emerged as Kentucky’s highest growth industry – even pork, “which had virtually disappeared from our state,” is making a comeback.
Keeping animals safe, then, is a high priority among local producers.
“This pretty well fits our policy with Farm Bureau,” said First Vice President Mark Haney, a Pulaski County farmer appointed head of an advisory council to hold public meetings concerning the proposed facility.
He said his council should have its first meeting at the end of March, with public forums to follow. “If we find out this project makes the short list (in the fall), we’ll ratchet up the public forums,” he explained.
For more details, contact Haney at 606-636-6148 or Ewell Balltrip of NIHS at either 606-677-1704 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
This farm news was published in the March 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.