The future home of the world’s most dangerous pathogens
- Photos by Arin Yoon
Around six years ago, microbiologist Lisa Hensley was scheduled to give a guest lecture in Manhattan, Kansas. The so-called Little Apple. Located in the state’s Flint Hills, the area used to be home to large herds of bison. Now, it’s home to lots of domesticated livestock.
It also hosts Kansas State University, where Hensley — who has studied some of the world’s scariest diseases — was going to speak. At the time, Hensley was part of the leadership at the National Institutes of Health. While she was visiting campus, she heard about a new, gigantic high-security lab called the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, or NBAF for short, that was going to be built adjacent to K-State. There, scientists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would study very contagious, and often fatal, diseases that affect animals and humans.
Around that time, construction on the 48-acre, 1.25-billion-dollar campus was just beginning. “I saw the pictures of the facilities and I was like, ‘Oh, that would be a really cool place to work,’” Hensley said.
Years later, a colleague called her with what sounded like a perfect opportunity: NBAF, whose construction finished earlier this year, was looking for someone to head up its Zoonotic and Emerging Disease Research Unit. That group would study existing high-consequence (read: dangerous) diseases that spread between humans and animals and those that are just beginning to rear their germy heads into existence or prominence on this planet. Scientists across NBAF would study foot-and-mouth disease, classical and African swine fevers, Rift Valley fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis and Nipah virus. These diseases affect animals like cattle, pigs, birds, bats, snakes and frogs, and also Homo sapiens.
The gig did sound perfect. Hensley’s son even thought it was a good idea, although he’d have to leave his friends in Maryland for this version of Manhattan.
NBAF officials apparently thought Hensley sounded pretty good, too: They hired her to lead the new team. “I think we could use a little adventure,” Hensley’s son told her.
The pair arrived in Kansas in August 2022, not long after the facility’s commissioning started. It had been under construction since 2015, and Manhattan had been chosen as the site in 2009 (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has managed the construction, but the USDA will run the facility). That’s a long time to have a mere paper-and-scaffolding lab, but the timeline makes sense because NBAF is a fundamentally new kind of project for the U.S. It’s subject to the highest safety protocols, a set of standards for “biosafety level 4,” or BSL-4, labs. These labs have to decontaminate everything before it goes out. They have dedicated air supply and exhaust systems and maintain negative air pressure, meaning physics dictates that air (and the pathogens wafting within it) only flows in, not out. People working inside, meanwhile, wear full-body, positive-pressure suits, so that air and particles from the lab can’t get in. Doing their work, they resemble badly-outfitted astronauts.
The BSL-4 designation and its attendant restrictions are reserved for places where scientists work with life-threatening, highly transmissible diseases for which there are usually no treatments or cures. And NBAF will be the first BSL-4 facility in the country that can handle large livestock. If you’ve ever tried to deal with a cow, you know that’s not easy even in a BSL-0 situation.
But it’s necessary if NBAF is to fulfill its mission of studying diseases that affect both humans and animals (zoonotic illnesses), deadly and currently untreatable diseases that affect animals abroad but haven’t yet crossed U.S. borders and related illnesses that are just popping up in nature. The average person is perhaps more familiar with the last category, nearly three years into a pandemic caused by a shiny new virus.
Scientists like those on Hensley’s team will work to understand germs’ fundamentals and determine how to develop vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. NBAF is replacing an aging facility in New York, called the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which couldn’t host large animals or diseases as dire as those NBAF will. Plum Island was only a BSL-3 lab.
Officials picked Manhattan as Plum Island’s successor in part because of the density of animal health companies in the area, as well as the scientific expertise found at K-State and its Biosecurity Research Institute. All of that exists, of course, because lots of livestock live nearby, and agriculture is a big part of the state’s economy.
But those are precisely some of the reasons critics, and conspiracists, have historically opposed the facility. Should there be a leak or an accident, a pathogen could find many unwitting animal hosts. University campuses like the one on which NBAF sits host academics flitting in and out (as Hensley did on her lecture visit), potentially taking pathogens with them. Those are grounded concerns, but more conspiratorially, some have called NBAF a bioweapons lab.
In high-containment biology labs like NBAF, though, the line between antagonistic misinformation and grounded concern is thin. And that means NBAF has to balance (at least) three things: the value of its research, the real risks of keeping big-time germs around and public concerns, both real and imagined.
The value of the work that Hensley and others will do within NBAF’s 574,000 square feet is clear: The World Health Organization estimates that around three-quarters of new diseases are zoonotic. And if a bunch of livestock came down with an exponentially spreading illness, it could devastate food supplies, economies and obviously the lives of the animals themselves.
That last part is important to Hensley. “What became really clear to me over the last few years is there was a lot of attention to, and we’re all very good now at understanding, how viruses will jump from animals to people and the impact that that can have,” she said. “But we’re not thinking a lot about what happens when that virus jumps back into animals, or when it goes from one animal species to another.” And that does happen: SARS-CoV-2, for instance, seems to have hopped from humans to mink. The virus has flamed through mink farms, killing thousands. Farmers have “culled” millions more in response.
Every time such a species jump happens, Hensley said, the virus gets a fresh chance to change and evolve — to get better at, say, spreading or becoming more virulent. In her unit of the lab, Hensley hopes to spot, and respond to, shifts like that as they happen. In these early stages, before the lab is actually open, she’s been setting up projects with partners abroad, in part to help them watch for new or jumping germs. After all, inevitably, those pathogens won’t stay in their countries of origin. “Ideally, when things do change, or there are new viruses, we will pick them up earlier and earlier,” she said.
That on-the-spot reaction has been Hensley’s catalyst since she became a scientist, which she did in part because of her father, who has the blood-clotting disorder hemophilia and is also a clinician.
One day when Hensley was home on a visit from college, her father took her to a medical conference he was attending. Outside the venue stood a number of protesters: They were fighting back against the lack of treatments available for HIV positive people or those with AIDS.
That struggle was personal for Hensley’s father, and soon became personal for her, too. Hemophilia interventions at the time involved giving patients a soup of concentrated blood “product,” cooked from the fluids of hundreds of different people. Sometimes — a lot of times, actually — that aggregate blood contained HIV. In the early 1980s, contaminated blood gave the fatal virus to about half of the 16,000 American hemophiliacs and 12,000 others who received blood transfusions, according to the 1995 Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study HIV Transmission Through Blood and Blood Product.
“On the way home, I asked my dad if he had been tested for HIV,” Hensley said.
He had not, he said. He and her mother had both determined that ignorance was bliss because the only treatment available was a problematic drug with lots of side effects. If a better drug came along, he said, sure, he’d get tested. But for now, he’d rather not know. “It was what I always call a moment of impact,’” she said, in almost startup-founder language. “You’re sitting there and this realization becomes personal.”
Hensley’s realization took the form of a question: How many people might still be alive if scientists had been more proactive about the HIV epidemic and acted earlier to, for instance, protect the blood supply?
Maybe, she thought, she could be part of that preemptive action in the future. When she went back to school, she changed her major. “I wanted to study how viruses jumped species and try to get ahead of the next pandemic,” she said.
After Hensley finished her schooling, she went to work for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases — USAMRIID, a place immortalized in “The Hot Zone,” a book by Richard Preston. There, Hensley dealt with all the bloody diseases you never want to get, like Ebola, Marburg virus and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
For that research, Hensley toiled in the literal hot zone, donning an astronaut-esque BSL-4 getup. Some of her experience there is actually included in a different Richard Preston book: “The Demon in the Freezer.” One chapter focuses on Hensley, describing an accident she had. One day, sick with a cold, she cut herself with scissors, while in the presence of the often-fatal Ebola virus.
She didn’t end up falling ill, but it had been a close, scary call. “I think you need to suck it up and get back in there and finish your experiment,” her father told her when they first spoke after the accident, according to “The Demon in the Freezer.” If she didn’t get right back on that horse, she might not ever saddle up again.
Clearly, she’s stayed in the rodeo ring for a long time. And now she will be working alongside some of the animals you’d actually find in one.
Accidents like Hensley’s nevertheless highlight the kinds of things that worry people near BSL-4 facilities like NBAF (and, as the spread of SARS-CoV-2 shows us, everywhere in the world is effectively “nearby”). If a researcher infects themselves, or pathogenic particles otherwise escape, it’s possible for a disease to spread beyond the confines of the lab. In Kansas, for instance, the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association long opposed NBAF’s construction, in part fearing that an accidental outbreak would infect livestock and spread like prairie fire.
It would be easy to just tell concerned residents they were overreacting. After all, “BSL-4” doesn’t mean “dangerous research level 4.” It’s not itself an indicator of how risky the work is: It’s a measure of how safe the researchers and the facility need to be, and are designed to be.
Perhaps the biggest way labs like NBAF mitigate against risk is redundancy. “They actually think through how the initial containment might fail and then have containment for containment,” said Scott Hanton, editorial director at Lab Manager, which provides resources to researchers to run their facilities more effectively and safely. The idea is to account for the fact that systems sometimes fail and sometimes multiple things can go wrong at once. “In the lab environment, we’re pretty good at dealing with a single failure,” Hanton said, “but in my experience, injuries come from two or more failures happening at the same time.”
As such, BSL-4 facilities like NBAF think about risk like a bunch of Swiss cheese, Jonathan Klane, Hanton’s coworker and senior safety editor at the publication, said. If you stack a bunch of Swiss slices, their holes often don’t line up. The stacked cheese is functionally solid. But if you stack the cheese enough times…“Probability, right?” Klane said. “Eventually, those holes — and those holes are gaps in our protective measures — do line up.” High-containment labs have to account for those gappy situations, even if they’re statistically unlikely.
And that’s to benefit everyone. “This BSL-4 facility isn’t just designed to protect the scientists who work in it,” Hanton said. “It’s also designed to protect the community in which it is placed.”
In this case, that means Manhattan and its residents, animal and human. The people of that community are right to have concerns and ask questions: Paranoid-sounding fears aren’t as far away from the actual risks as experts might like. In the U.K., for example, foot-and-mouth disease escaped a Surrey lab and infected cows at four nearby farms in 2007. NBAF’s own environmental impact statement has a whole appendix of “biocontainment lapses and laboratory-acquired infections.” It details a significant one from the 1970s, when its predecessor facility, Plum Island, allowed foot-and-mouth disease to sneak out. “Cattle outside of the laboratory facility were found to be infected,” the document reads. “…All animals on the island were euthanized and incinerated. The virus outbreak was limited to the island.”
NBAF officials don’t want anything like that to happen and are aiming to make the facility a “high-reliability organization” — a kind of formalism that UC Berkeley researchers began to come up with in the late 1980s to describe companies that have managed to do their thing without big accidents, despite operating in environments where accidents could be expected, like nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants. “We’re building a culture from the ground up,” Katherine Pawlosky, a USDA public affairs specialist, said. “This is a brand-new facility, so we have the opportunity to start with the best culture possible, rather than try to have to fix it.”
Still, the “what ifs” aren’t hype-y: They’re reasonable, and over the years of NBAF’s development, USDA and Department of Homeland Security officials had heard many of them and considered many of them themselves — for example, “What if a big tornado blows through?”
But they hadn’t seen anything quite like the April 2021 livestream of a Manhattan city commission meeting. NBAF wasn’t even on the meeting’s agenda, but as officials spoke, nearly 2,000 comments appeared beside the Facebook Live video (compared to a normal 10 or so), almost all about the BSL-4 facility. A sample:
“Who thought putting such a dangerous lab in the middle of our food supply was a great idea! ‘Mistakes’ happen all the time! Get this out of here! Put it on a remote island!”
“WHY would a Level 4 Lab be located in the middle of our BEEF supply in the heartland of our FOOD PRODUCTION?!!! This sounds intentionally criminal.”
“It’s all about the $$$. So sick of you all sacrificing the people, our food supply, our land and our health...for YOUR greed!”
“Tax $$$ should NOT be used against us to experiment on our food supply. Don’t play with fire.”
“Wuhan mutant cold viruses coming to central USA....Who wants another muti-year lockdown? Only this time with no food.....”
“They are planning the next great pandemic that can grow their pockets further”
According to a report in the Mercury, the town newspaper, these commenters — who came from all over the country and the internet — may have been spurred partly by a conservative podcaster who’d recently released an episode and written an article about NBAF. The episode’s description read: “A chilling show on bio weapons, level 4 labs, and using famine as a weapon. A history of forced industrialization and shortages. Population safety concerns are mostly a PR effort. …Why Kansas? America’s beef belt is vulnerable. Attacking food resources is an ancient evil.”
The difference between “I don’t want my cattle to get sick because of an accident” and “they are planning the next great pandemic” illustrates the difference between a worry grounded in reality and conspiracy, misinformation and disinformation. In this realm, you tend to step into dubious territory when you start accusing people of lying or hiding things, particularly if you’re taking one small data point and extrapolating it into a broader coverup. “There is this kernel of truth, you know?” Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity researcher at King’s College London, said. “There is something to build on, which is how disinformation works anyway. You pick on this kernel of truth, and then you just build elaborate lies around that.”
To combat that construction, Lentzos said, the best thing BSL-4 facilities can do is to be transparent about the goings-on among their secluded HVAC systems. “You have to engage with your local community and talk about what it is that you’re doing,” she said.
“If there’s a void of information people make up their own, for sure,” Pawlosky admitted.
NBAF officials are trying to fill that void. “From our knowledge, we are the first USDA laboratory facility to have its own communications unit on the ground floor,” Pawlosky said. Representatives from the lab talk into microphones monthly for a local radio show and occasionally pen articles in the local newspaper. Last fiscal year, the lab did more than 200 outreach activities, like making presentations to community groups. They try, Pawlosky said, “to educate the community, to partner with the community, to make sure that NBAF isn’t just this place that sits over by the Kansas State football stadium that nobody knows anything about.”
But, actually, if people want information about BSL-4 labs in general, there is no great place for them to go. That’s something Lentzos noticed as the Covid pandemic was lassoing the world. Then, as now, people voiced concerns that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 facility, could be the source of the pandemic. This provenance got labeled a conspiracy, but the idea that a pathogen might escape, accidentally, from a lab is not in itself outrageous or conspiratorial. As scrutiny bore down on the lab, people started asking Lentzos about other such facilities. “So where’s the list of these labs?” she recalled them saying. “How many are there?”
There isn’t a list, she told them. Aside from the one on Wikipedia.
Those questions ringing her ears, she and her colleague Gregory Koblentz, director of George Mason University’s biodefense program, decided to make their own list and began to scour the world virtually for BSL-4 labs.
On some parts of the planet, it’s fairly apparent — in that labs aren’t actively hidden. But it’s rarely easy. “Even in the U.S., you don’t have a sense of exactly how many you have,” Lentzos said. There’s no central register, no DMV of BSL-4s.
In the end, though, they found more than 60, with 14 in North America, and set up the website Globalbiolabs.org to display the results. On the site, a Cartesian map of the planet is dotted north, south, east and west with yellow biohazard symbols, their spidery arms reaching toward each other, denoting the locations of known labs.
NBAF is already on there, and if you click on its icon, the map will jump to a satellite view of the K-State campus. An informational box will pop up, showing the Global Health Security Index ranking of the U.S. (“high”) and linking to its Biological Weapons Convention declarations, which contain information about labs, research programs, vaccine production and outbreaks, among other things. A little flower overlaid on the image denotes the Kansas State University Gardens nearby.
In the second phase of Lentzos and Koblentz’s project, they hope to learn more about the regulations and oversight that fence in each facility, which differ from nation to nation. There is no international body that has a mandate to keep track of or oversee pathogen labs or high-consequence biological research. “You can’t collate up the information to see bigger trends and patterns in, for example, typical accidents or typical challenges,” Lentzos said.
What Lentzos would like to see is the life sciences equivalent of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees nuclear goings-on across the world. After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, people could see the potential fallout of unchecked proliferation. They also realized that no matter which country was undertaking atomic development, the consequences wouldn’t heed borders. “Biology has never had that security moment that nuclear physicists had when the bombs went off,” Lentzos said. “So the biological community, life science community, has remained naive in many ways to the potential security implications of their work.”
But both biologists and the general public are likely more acutely aware of how disruptive, disturbing and dangerous an invisibly small pathogen can be now than they were just a few years ago. That awareness also means that more people have likely heard the term “BSL” than ever before. Hensley finds the new public familiarity to be a positive thing.
When she first started donning BSL-4 suits, her family thought her work was interesting. “Almost like it’s cute,” she said. Things first started to change after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed: People became aware of the idea of “biodefense.” “I would say it’s the first shift,” she said.
More recently, since Covid came along, people know more about viruses’ ability to hop species. They are also painfully knowledgeable about the havoc that hopping can have on society, and, Hensley said, “just how vulnerable we are.”
In this pandemic, then, Hensley has seen a second shift, toward a broader appreciation of public health and the importance of early detection and intervention — the kinds of things that have been shaping her career since she watched the protestors with her father. “It makes my life easier, I’ll be honest,” she said, “that people better appreciate what I do, and are more receptive to the laboratories and to the work and in general are just much more supportive of what we’re doing.”
Her son hasn’t wavered in his support. And now, when they go about their lives in the Little Apple and pass some sign related to Covid, he likes to remind her of something. “This is why you’re here,” he tells her.
Because if it’s not HIV, it’s anthrax. And if it’s not anthrax, it’s SARS-CoV-2. And if it’s not SARS-CoV-2, it’s whatever is coming for us, and our livestock, next.
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