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National Bio and Agro Defense fits Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. - It's not every day that Wisconsin has a chance to attract a major federal laboratory. It has been more than 30 years since the National Wildlife Health Center was established in Madison, and nearly 100 years since the University of Wisconsin was selected over the University of Michigan as the site for the National Forest Products Laboratory. Both labs have contributed immensely to the world's knowledge of wildlife diseases and forests - as well as the state's economy.

Early in 2007, Wisconsin will learn whether it's on the short list for another major federal project: the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. Like the wildlife and forest products labs, this center would be a near-perfect match with the state's tradition of natural resources stewardship, agriculture, and life sciences research.

The UW-Madison's Kegonsa Research Facility near Stoughton has already made the cut from 29 proposed sites to 14 for the NBAF, where foreign and domestic animal pathogens that plague farmers - and sometimes humans - would be isolated and studied. The center would be built on 40 acres in the Dane County town of Dunn and eventually employ as many as 400 people, most of them researchers and technologists.

Managed jointly by the federal Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, the NBAF would have a Level 4 biosafety security rating, the highest available. It would replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center near Long Island, N.Y., where this type of work has been conducted since the 1950s.

Wisconsin is a national leader, and has been so for generations, in the types of research that would take place in a National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. At the UW-Madison alone, the breadth of interdisciplinary research expertise that could be brought to bear is as expansive - if not more so - as any place in the United States. In fact, Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin System have a history, dating back to the early 19th century, of being on the cutting edge of research involving plant and animal genetics, zoonotic pathogens, and public health solutions.
Assets galore

The UW-Madison's assets include the School of Veterinary Medicine, among the top 10 in the nation. The School of Medicine and Public Health was the home of the late Howard Temin, just one in the long line of University of Wisconsin Nobel laureates. The School of Pharmacy houses the new Lenor Zeeh Pharmaceutical Experiment station. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is host to the UW Biotechnology Center and the Genome Center of Wisconsin, where breakthroughs such as the sequencing of the E.coli genome took place.

The UW-Madison campus also boasts one of the nation's only biotrons, the Institute for Molecular Virology, the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the Department of Food Microbiology and Toxicology, and experienced centers in biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, and molecular biology.

On the planning boards: The UW Institute for Discovery, a $375 million project, which will serve as a national model for interdisciplinary research.

Wisconsin already has or can attract the skilled workforce needed to staff such a facility. Because Wisconsin's agricultural roots run deep, many researchers and scientists here are closely connected to the land through cultural and familial ties. The state also is home to architectural, engineering, and construction firms that are among the nation's best in designing and building secure, tech-based facilities.

Most important, Wisconsin has a long tradition of hosting national-level research facilities or facilities linked to national defense. In the Madison area alone, the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant, the forest products and wildlife labs (site of extensive testing for avian flu), the new National Stem Cell Bank, and most recently, the Institute for Influenza Viral Research are all prime examples.

Fierce fight

The political competition for this facility will be fierce once the list of 14 is shaved to a relative handful. Other states understand the importance of landing federal research centers, especially those that fit with existing research and commercial strengths. There will be local concerns, primarily about safety, but the record is clear: This center would be among the safest in the world, and it's a match with Wisconsin's farming tradition.

Few, if any, states are better situated than Wisconsin to serve as the site for the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. It is the right fit with the state's agricultural and research traditions, it would benefit Wisconsin farmers, and it will help the nation and the world. If Wisconsin makes this short list, let's not miss the opportunity.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Rick Bogle responded 8 years ago: #1

I attended the packed meeting last night at the Town of Dunn Town Hall, about 20 minutes from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The UW, unbeknownst to the citizens of Dunn, invited the USDA and Homeland Security to build a BSL-4 lab on the university's 40 acres in Dunn. UW made the first cut and is now among 14(?) semi-finalist universities vying for
this honor.

BSL-4 labs are very rare. There is one in San Antonio at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research; one in Galveston at the University of Texas, Galveston; the CDC in Atlanta is another, and there is one at Fort Dietrich in Maryland. (Apparently, the primary U.S. biological warfare lab.) There are probably a very few top secret others.

BSL-4 labs engage in research using the most deadly and contagious diseases known. These are zoonotic diseases (non-host specific, that move from species to species) that are easily aerosoled and tend to start as respiratory infections. They have longish latency periods, which means that infected people move around spreading the disease before they sicken and die. These are the labs where people wear space suits.

When asked why the UW had invited the government to come here and begin shipping in these deadly diseases prior to discussing the matter with the citizens of Dunn, UW Provost Patrick Farrell said that the UW submits so many letters of interest to the feds that it just didn't seem important.

In the 90-page application for the honor of hosting this lab, the UW claimed at least three times (according to an attorney present at the meeting who came well prepared) that local officials supported the idea of hosting this
lab in their community. When asked to name those officials, the UW representatives couldn't name one and said that they had to hurry to get their application in on time.

When asked about worse-case scenarios, one of the UW experts said that if a lab technician dropped a beaker with some dangerous culture inside, that they were trained to hold their breath (!).

No questions were answered substantively.

The issue of primates came up a couple of times. When asked whether primates would be in the facility, the "spokesdopes" said that they didn't know, probably not, and that therefore no one should worry about the "AR terrorists" because they care only about monkeys. Guess he forgot the local
mink releases, and the outcry over the UW's pig tasering, the starved cows, and the medically neglected dog.

When asked why the UW's Institutional Biosafety Committee minutes are so hard to obtain, it was claimed that university oversight commitees across the nation had started meeting in secret because activists had been attending IACUC meetings, getting copies of the minutes, and using them to create tension between the labs and their communities. (By making them public.)

The people of Dunn probably think they have a chance. Hah. If the feds decide to build in Dunn, they will. And the UW will claim after the fact and until the public forgets again, that public meetings were held and that they listened to the public's concerns.

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