Eight years after ground was first broken for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, government officials gathered Wednesday to celebrate the facility’s official opening.

“The research that's going to be done here is … critically important to protect American agriculture,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told celebrants at a ceremony held outside the facility. Vilsack was also at the groundbreaking in 2015 during his previous tenure as the nation's ag secretary during the Obama administration.

The $1.25 billion research center will eventually replace the 68-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) in New York and serve as the location for Agricultural Research Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service research on animal diseases.

NBAF is the first facility in the U.S. with the strongest biocontainment standard — officially labeled BSL-4 — “to study high-consequence zoonotic diseases affecting large livestock,” USDA said on its website.

The facility was constructed by the Department of Homeland Security, which signed a memorandum of agreement in 2019 to outline the terms of transferring the facility's operations to USDA upon its opening. 

In addition to Vilsack, speakers at the event included former Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, current Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, USDA Undersecretaries Chavonda Jacobs-Young and Jenny Lester Moffit, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. 

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Vilsack singled out Roberts in particular for his persistence over the years since the facility was first proposed in 2005.

“Kansas was extraordinarily lucky to have all the people who have been mentioned at various levels that made this project possible,” he said. “But you were extremely lucky to have Pat Roberts, where he was advocating so often, so forcefully and so passionately, for this project. Trust me. I was on the other end of a lot of that.”

Roberts, who chaired both the Senate Ag and Intelligence committees during his 23 years in the chamber, detailed the history of how the project came to be built in Kansas, a story that included the Kansas legislature increasing the state’s bid after the Texas legislature had adjourned, and numerous attempts to divert money meant for NBAF to other priorities.

“How many times did my staff and I go to the House and Senate appropriators to make sure we were still OK with our annual appropriations? How many times did DHS, with all due respect, ignore congressional intent and shift money from NBAF to research or something else they deemed more important? We did not give up.” Roberts said. “It's been one hell of a ride.”

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