SDSU research lab upgrades will help protect South Dakota livestock, public health

At the South Dakota State University Animal Disease Research  and Diagnostics Lab (ADRDL) turns 50 years old, Gov. Dennis Daugaard is requesting legislative funding to support $60 million upgrades that will help protect the state’s livestock industry and ensure mandated public health through food safety.

These upgrades include increased safety capabilities as well as improvements to the aging building infrastructure. They will be entirely funded through state legislation and SDSU — no private funds were available to SDSU for this project.

South Dakota’s $7.3 billion agriculture industry depends upon avoiding major epidemics or disease outbreaks that could infiltrate livestock, according to SDSU President Barry Dunn. These upgrades to South Dakota’s only accredited veterinary diagnostics lab will allow researchers to work with unknown specimen that can, and have, appeared in the past.

“It’s kind of like an insurance policy: you don’t really care about it until you need it. If foot and mouth disease broke as an epidemic, we would care mightily about this lab and whether it was a BSL (Biosystems Safety Level) three,” Dunn said. 

Within four years, South Dakota has seen four cases of disease outbreak not previously seen in the United States. These cases escalated to more modern labs that had higher BSL capabilities to deal with them.

While a key upgrade, the entire lab will not be BSL 3, said ADRDL Director Jane Christopher-Hennings, but rather a specific section that is designated to handle higher airflow rates. This level of capability is becoming standard in today’s veterinarian safety labs.

“There’s a small area in the new addition [that is BSL 3] … it’s like an isolation room in a hospital to put infectious agents where you don’t want a lot of people exposed to them,” Hennings said. “That’s one area where it would be important to have, as well as if you’re suspecting a zoogenic disease, such as influenza or rabies or even West Nile virus is a Biosystems Safety Level three virus.”

Without these sort of modern-age standards, Dunn said the future of agriculture, the state’s number one industry, could be at a disadvantage.

“We produce an enormous amount of feedstuffs in South Dakota (corn, soybeans, wheat) and we have to export it out because we don’t even come close to using all of it on our own,” Dunn said. “Without a lab that we’re trying to build, farmers who are thinking about a facility are hesitant because we won’t have adequate protection in their investment.”

Dunn believes the question is when, rather than if, another influenza or disease outbreak will occur. Since surrounding states do not share the responsibility of protecting South Dakota’s livestock, Dunn said these upgrades are a risk management strategy and it would be “irresponsible” to not take action on them.

Daniel Scholl, interim dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, echoed the same sentiment, saying “this is the time” for facility upgrades.

“We are continually in conversations with leaders in the state and in the industry, but for the last three years we have been talking with leaders in Pierre, the animal industry board, state level veterinarian, leaders of livestock groups, poultry association, stock growers [and the] dairyman’s association,” Scholl said.

Alongside these technology upgrades, the facility needs to restore aging infrastructure and expand the current space for new equipment. If these upgrades receive state funding this legislative session, the lab will start construction in fall 2017 and be in full production by fall 2019.

The construction, however, will be completed through a multi-step process that will add onto the current building first. Once that is complete, the staff will move into the newly built space while the old space is renovated.

This is so the lab does not need to shut down for an extended period of time.

“We can’t be down for a long portion of time because we don’t know what’s going to come through the door [whether it be an unknown virus or a serious test case],” Hennings said. “It does have a big impact on what happens in South Dakota, as well as surrounding areas. We also want to make sure we have good worker safety here.”

The project has already used $1 million in planning and designing the upgrades, as well as analyzing the current state of the facility. SDSU officials do, however, have historic reason to put forth that sum of money beforehand.

In recent history, the ADRDL has helped end national epidemics, such as the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PEDS) outbreak in 2013 and the influenza outbreak in the spring of 2015. In 1983, the lab also identified the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRSV) “mystery swine” virus and developed a vaccine for it. Royalties to this patented vaccine paid for student scholarships until 1987.

Aside from diagnosing national outbreaks and giving regional animal herds routine check ups, the lab also offers research, employment and experience opportunities for students.

“It has great benefits to SDSU for research. Our researchers are better teachers because they’re in the lab, and we have students working in the lab gaining an experience they can leverage into a good job with a vaccine company or in industry,” Dunn said.

According to Scholl, the staff at the ADRDL have helped create a positive working “synergy” for their public and university services.

“There’s a seamless flow between the lab proper and the university researchers since it is a state research and diagnostic laboratory in the university and operated by the university. It gives it a lot of value to the stakeholders in the state and region,” Scholl said.

Dunn is hopeful these upgrades will be passed this legislative session.

“It’s got a great plan—it’ll work—we’re hoping that the governor believes in it and that the legislature can find a path to fund it,” Dunn said.