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After years of controversy, national bio-defense lab opens in Kansas

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — After more than a decade of controversy and delays, the nation's most secure biosecurity laboratory for research on potentially deadly animal and plant diseases has opened in Manhattan, Kansas.

Although a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Wednesday, researchers at the $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility are not expected to begin working on biohazards for more than a year, officials said.

For now, staff will conduct compliance and regulatory work, prepare protocols and operating procedures and train before working with any pathogens, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

“They will check all the systems according to the international standards and national standards,” NBAF director Alfonso Clavijo said. “And only after we have that approval will we be able to actually do any work. We expect that by late 2024, we should be able to have that approval.”

Initially estimated to cost $451 million, the price tag more than doubled after the National Research Council published a report in 2010 that questioned putting the facility in the heart of cattle country with a history of large, destructive tornadoes.

Department of Homeland Security officials said the increased cost came in part because the lab’s design was changed to reduce the possibility of releasing deadly pathogens.

The laboratory replaces an aging facility in Plum Island, New York. Officials there fought hard to keep the lab and several other states made bids to become home to the lab before Kansas was chosen in 2009.

Originally expected to open in 2016, construction of the laboratory was delayed several times by economic problems, safety concerns and resistance from politicians who wanted the project in their states.

The northeastern Kansas facility will be the nation’s only large-animal biosafety Level 4 lab, which means it will be able to handle pathogens that do not currently have treatments or countermeasures.

It is unclear when pathogens used in research will be moved from Plum Island to Kansas, spokesperson Katie Pawlosky said, and no animals or equipment will be transferred.

About 280 people currently work at the lab, which is expected to have more than 400 people when fully staffed.