Experts are worrying about the potential of a lab leak from a new US Lab designed to study deadly animal diseases in large animals in Manhattan Kansas, right in the middle of the US’ agricultural heartland.

The lab, named the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), is built with security in mind to prevent such a lab leak from occurring but that hasn’t stopped agriculture specialists and epidemiologists from worrying.

Despite the flurry of concerned criticism, many experts believe that the lab is necessary to protect American livestock and the general public from deadly epidemics. Only one lab in the US, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, can do the same kind of research the NBAF is designed for.

The Plum Island Center, placed on a tiny island (similar to Alcatraz island) on the Long Island Sound, has been doing deadly animal disease research on large animals for over 60 years.

Recently, the lab started to show its age and lack of new biosecurity features so the government looked to build a replacement, the NBAF.

How Big Of A Threat Are Lab Leaks of Deadly Diseases?

Fears of deadly pathogens leaking from the various kinds of top security biolabs have increased exponentially since 2020. While there is still not enough evidence to say conclusively, many experts, including the US Energy Department, believe that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

If this is true, the recent fears of more devastating lab leaks are certainly justified. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a biosafety level 4 lab, the most secure level of laboratory in the world. If a deadly pathogen could escape this lab then all other labs could be at risk for leaks as well.

In May 2020, even the US National Institute of Health warned of issues with the Wuhan Lab’s biosafety measures.

The Wuhan Institute is also not the only lab that (allegedly) suffered a severe lab leak in recent years. In fact, it wouldn’t have even been the only leak of COVID-19. In November 2021, a lab worker in a high-security biolab in Taipei contracted COVID despite the fact that there were 0 other local cases confirmed. It was later discovered that he had the same variant that was being studied in the lab.

There have been dozens of confirmed lab leaks of diseases like Ebola, Brucella, Polio, Smallpox, and more since 2000 and they are showing no signs of stopping. Biotech companies and supporters of researching dangerous pathogens believe that the research is worth the risk, however.

Will The NBAF Cause a Lab Leak of a Deadly Disease?

Despite NBAF’s status as a biosafety level 4 lab, some experts believe the chances of a deadly animal pathogen eventually being leaked are high. Laura Kahn, a biodefense expert who has worked with Princeton’s Science and Global Security program for nearly 2 decades, cites a rather terrifying 2010 DHS evaluation.

The report found that NBAF would have a 70% chance of causing an outbreak of devastating and contagious foot and mouth disease over the next 50 years. Strangely, the DHS released a second report that dropped the risk to 0.11%.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel found both reports problematic, saying that the first was simply incomplete and the second was based on “questionable and inappropriate assumptions.”

Laura Kahn also noted that the lab is placed in what she thinks is a horrible location. Because it is in Manhattan Kansas, in the middle of the US’ agricultural heartland, a leak would be especially devastating. Larry Kendig, a member of the board of the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association said that a leak there would be so devastating that it “would just shut down commerce.”

Furthermore, Manhattan Kansas is in the middle of tornado country. Even a BS-4 lab may not be able to withstand a large tornado. While the chances of a tornado carrying live deadly pathogens to infect livestock or people directly are low, cleanup efforts could lead to infection and transmission of the diseases.

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