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Animal researchers warn of animal virus threat

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | 6:22 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Their names seemed to be pulled out of a science-fiction novel: Rift Valley fever, exotic blue tongue, Chinese porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

But on Monday at the Biosecurity Research Symposium in Kansas City, Mo., animal researchers warned that those viruses were a very real threat to national security.

They could arrive by animal or terrorist, cost the livestock industry billions of dollars and put human lives at risk.

In the future many of those diseases could come to Kansas as researchers study ways to prevent, diagnose and protect against them.

That research will take place in high-security labs at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute, which is now working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gain approval to study some of those diseases.

That lab's work will prepare for the arrival of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a $650 million project that will be operational in Manhattan in the next decade.

Right now the country doesn't have a facility that can study the most dangerous biological agents on animals. That will change with NBAF.

The work done in these laboratories protects the country, said Larry Barrett, the director of Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the aging facility in Long Island, N.Y., that NBAF will replace.

"People think we are the threat. But the threat is the 50 million people coming into the country that could be bringing other diseases in," he said.

Barrett spoke to a crowd that included university researchers, livestock industry representatives and a few people from law enforcement and emergency services.

While getting a snapshot of the potential damage that future outbreaks could cause, the audience also had a peek into how researchers handled some of the country's scariest encounters with biosecurity threats.

Tracey McNamara was a senior pathologist at the Bronx Zoo when she made a link between large numbers of crows and exotic birds dying at the zoo and New Yorkers becoming sick from mosquito bites.

A possible connection was first shot down by public health officials across the country. After further testing, both humans and birds were found to have the West Nile virus.

"The West Nile virus showed me we have glaring gaps in zoonotic (disease) defense," McNamara said. "We have no idea where the next zoonotic threat comes from, and it could be a lot closer than you think."

Jerry and Nancy Jaax, husband and wife, talked about their efforts to contain a new strain of the ebola virus found among a group of 500 monkeys in Reston, Va., in 1989. That biosecurity threat was depicted in the 1994 bestseller "The Hot Zone."

Today the couple work at Kansas State. Jerry Jaax is an associate vice president of research and compliance and a university veterinarian. Nancy Jaax is an adjunct professor of diagnostic medicine and pathology.

Jerry Jaax was part of the team — wearing the suits like those seen in the movie "Outbreak" — that went into the facility that housed the monkeys.

"It wasn't scary. It was the coolest thing you could be involved in," he said of the work, which included spending a whole day chasing a monkey.

Nancy Jaax was one of the scientists working to identify what virus had made the monkeys sick. It turned out to be a modified version of the Zaire ebola virus. Unlike the Zaire ebola virus, the one found in Virginia, which came to be known as Reston ebola virus, wasn't found to be fatal in humans. However, it could be transmitted through the air.

"You can't even imagine that type of roller coaster ... everything just goes to the bottom," Jaax said of the moment they realized the virus was linked to ebola. "You question who had it, who looked at it."


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