The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) achieved a major milestone recently.

“As of December 20, a couple weeks ago, DHS finished commissioning of the facility,” said Tim Barr, NBAF Program Manager for the Department of Homeland Security. Barr shared those comments on Thursday’s edition of KMAN’s In Focus.

Barr says commissioning also came in under the $1.5 billion budget established by federal officials in 2014, despite challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction slowed on the facility in 2020 and disruptions to the supply chain as well as inflation, also created delays, with officials pushing back the commissioning timeline several times over the next two years.

Despite the challenges, Barr says cross-agency coordination between DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helped overcome some of those barriers created by the pandemic. He says typically, with a facility like NBAF, the construction contractor would get done and then the operational staff would move in.

“We started moving operations folks and facilities and USDA folks into the facility before our contractor was done. That’s unheard of,” he said.

Barr says staff from both agencies had to be careful not to impede the progress of the construction contractor, but worked up procedures to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

“It was hugely beneficial to the USDA staff to get in early and not wait until a couple weeks ago to have access to the facility,” he said.

NBAF Deputy Director Dr. Ken Burton says the NBAF facility is now in the midst of a 60-day operational endurance period, giving USDA officials “unfettered access” to the containment laboratories and elsewhere within the facility.

“During that endurance phase, USDA’s work processes have to be tested and validated in accordance with the building systems. During the second 30 days of the period, in addition to our operational testing, we’ll be able to bring our science teams in to confirm laboratory setup, to be able to evaluate some of their standardized laboratory work processes and double check to make sure all equipment is functioning appropriately,” he said.

Burton says in addition to the endurance period, rigorous inspections and reviews will be conducted prior to any scientific research taking place at the facility.

“Our BSL-4 containment laboratories require the highest level of safety protocols and technology, so the scientists can safely study and diagnose that variety of high-consequence animal pathogens that they’ll be working with. The facility, our personnel must undergo a series of inspections and reviews by the Federal Select Agent Program,” he said.

Once fully operational, NBAF will have laboratories functioning at multiple biosafety levels, including the first facility in the United States with biosafety-level-4 containment capable of housing large livestock.

USDA anticipates taking ownership of the facility in the spring, with the full transfer of the scientific mission from Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York likely to be completed within the next two years.