By Dr. Tammy R. Beckham, TVMDL Director
When it comes to preparing Texas and the Southwest for disaster, we have an important job at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. We focus on the disasters that may result from outbreaks of infectious animal diseases. We are meeting our responsibility on three major fronts:
- Our high-containment laboratories in College Station and Amarillo.
- Our commitment to the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.
- Our collaborations with the FAZD Center, which conducts research and develops products to defend the United States from the contagious animal diseases that most threaten U.S. animal agriculture, U.S. public health and the nation’s food supply.
TVMDL operates the only two high-containment laboratories in Texas that are specifically dedicated to the animal diseases that pose significant threats to the agriculture economy and to public health. We opened our first high-containment lab at our College Station headquarters in 2004, and a second last year at our Amarillo facility. These labs allow us to perform preliminary testing on highly suspect diagnostic cases. They also significantly increase our ability to handle a dramatic increase in cases during an outbreak.
For example, our high-containment laboratory in Amarillo has the capacity to test approximately 300 samples in an eight-to-10 hour shift. Its short-term surge capacity is much higher. By locating this lab in the Texas High Plains, we can provide better protection to some of the world’s largest animal agriculture companies as well as smaller independent producers.
We are not waiting for a major outbreak to put these labs into service. The fact is we use them at College Station and at Amarillo as part of our routine diagnostic services, most of which are rated at the lower level of BSL-2. However, we are prepared to ramp up to BSL-3 at a moment’s notice.
Ready to avert disaster
TVMDL maintains the only BSL-3 labs in Texas devoted entirely to diagnosing animal diseases.
Both of our high-containment labs are built to operate as needed at biosafety level 3 (BSL-3). This means they are equipped to handle pathogens that may cause serious harm through inhalation. These include the pathogens that cause foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever, among others.
Though they are rare, outbreaks of these high-consequence diseases can have a disastrous effect on animal health, the food supply, the movement of animals and animal products, and the overall agriculture economy. Thus having immediate access to a BLS-3 laboratory is vital to averting an animal agriculture disaster.
Our BSL-3 laboratories are specifically designed to contain high-consequence pathogens. Their features include controlled double-door access, directional airflow and filtered exhaust.
We employ laboratory personnel who are trained to work with high-consequence agents. They are supervised by some of the nation’s foremost experts in disease diagnostics. They conduct all procedures with suspect agents inside biological safety cabinets or other containment devices. They wear appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment.
The existence of our high-containment labs is tied directly to TVMDL’s Legislative-mandated mission to protect animal agriculture in Texas. We were established in 1967 and opened our doors in 1969 with the specific purpose of providing Texas with the capacity to detect, diagnose and respond to the animal diseases that can cripple our state economy and disrupt our food supply.
By placing BSL-3 labs in the Texas High Plains and in Central Texas, we extend our capacity to meet that mission more quickly, more accurately and more efficiently than ever.
TVMDL’s high-containment laboratories offer capabilities that we sincerely hope we may never have to put into action. But in the event of a major outbreak of a high-consequence animal disease, every Texan will be glad we have these labs ready to go.
Our commitment to NAHLN
Our BSL-3 labs also help meet our commitment to the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), a group of state and regional laboratories that provide nationwide animal disease surveillance and surge capacity for testing, response, and recovery in the event of an animal disease outbreak. Our ability to provide rapid, early and accurate diagnoses is vital to that role.
Each year, TVMDL conducts hundreds of thousands of tests for the early detection of high-consequence pathogens that affect public health, animal health and the agriculture economy. Some are zoonotic; that is, transmissible between people and animals. Others could disrupt the nation’s food supply.
We test routinely for avian influenza, novel H1N1 influenza, swine influenza, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, pseudorabies, chronic wasting disease, exotic Newcastle disease, contagious equine metritis and vesicular stomatitis, among others. Also, we have participated in periodic testing trials for foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever.Our program of biosurveillance puts TVDML on the vanguard of protecting the state, the region and the nation from a biological disaster.
Collaborations with the FAZD Center
In addition, there is TVMDL’s ongoing collaboration with the FAZD Center, a Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Center of Excellence headquartered at Texas A&M University, where I also serve as director.
Working with more than 100 partner institutions across the nation and around the world, the FAZD Center conducts research to develop cutting-edge products to protect animal agriculture and public health from high-consequence diseases. These include foreign animal diseases, emerging diseases and zoonotic diseases. More specifically, the center’s biological research targets the pathogens that cause foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, avian influenza (particularly the subtype H5N1) and Rift Valley fever.
Researchers at TVMDL are working on many of these products, including:
- Developing new screening tools for the beef, dairy and pork industries. These tools will provide early detection of foot-and-mouth disease, Rift Valley fever, and various endemic and foreign diseases of swine.
- Establishing a short list of candidate antigens that could lead to a vaccine for African swine fever. This research could eventually lead to a vaccine that provides superior protection from infection while allowing diagnostic tests to distinguish a vaccinated animal from an infected one.
- Providing advanced diagnostic training to veterinary professionals from around the world in molecular methods, biosafety measures, and diagnostic epidemiology.
In 2012, we completed training two research fellows from the Republic of Kazakhstan, Dr. Kalamkas Shampieva, head of depository collections of microorganisms, and Dr. Samat Tyulegenov, assistant manager of molecular genetics, at Kazakhstan’s National Veterinary Reference Center.
Each participated in a 12-week program at the FAZD Center and TVMDL. We then sent a team to Kazakhstan to conduct a two-day workshop with Dr. Shampieva and Dr. Tyulegenov. That workshop trained an additional nine diagnosticians and technicians from the reference laboratory, as well as five territorial inspectors from the republic’s Ministry of Agriculture.
During the fall, we began a similar project with a research fellow from Egypt. Dr. Rabab El Sawah recently completed her 12-week fellowship with TVMDL and the FAZD Center. Dr. El Sawah works at the zoonotic disease department at the General Organization of Veterinary Services (GOVS) in Cairo. At GOVS, Dr. El Sawah supervises veterinary testing for tuberculosis and brucellosis.
By collaborating with the FAZD Center on this program, TVMDL helps to protect U.S. agriculture by confronting high-consequences animal diseases in regions where they are considered endemic or where they are most likely to emerge.
Through our high-containment laboratories, our commitment to NALHN and our collaborations with the FAZD Center, the professionals at TVMDL strive every day to prepare our state, our regions and our nation for – and to protect them from – biological disasters.