Due in part to the avian influenza virus that led to the death of millions of turkeys and chickens across the country last summer, South Dakota is laying the groundwork to upgrade its only animal health laboratory, a move that veterinary officials say is crucial in helping the state's big agriculture industry weather future outbreaks.
Veterinary and agriculture officials say though the Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory in Brookings responded quickly and effectively to the bird flu — even helping labs in Minnesota and Iowa — the nearly 50-year-old facility lacks the space and design to handle new outbreaks and the security measures to effectively protect researchers.
"I think there was a little shock and awe across the livestock industry (following the outbreak) about how susceptible we've become in this modern world to these really deadly pathogens," said Barry Dunn, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State University, where the lab is located.
The university has been studying how to best update and expand the lab and is working with an architecture and design firm to estimate the costs of renovations that would emphasize capacity, safety and modernization. Gov. Dennis Daugaard has included over $1.5 million in his 2016 budget proposal that would cover the costs of continuing the study.
The lab runs daily food safety tests while also diagnosing animals from across the state and researching a variety of new and emerging diseases.
Since its last renovation, the lab has added four new sections, including molecular diagnostics and DNA sequencing, neither of which existed in 1993. All of these advances in technology have led to space constraints, and some worry that any massive animal disease outbreak could overwhelm the lab with the volume of tests needed from animal producers.
"Being able to have rapid access to testing in the event of a disease, might be the difference between a farm being allowed to market its product or not being able to move (its animals)," State Veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven said.
Lab officials hope that in addition to helping them effectively handle an emergency outbreak, the renovations will increase the biosecurity of the facility, ensuring the safety of lab personnel who handle dangerous diseases. Currently, they're not permitted to store and research diseases that the federal government classifies as "select agents," such as bird flu and foot and mouth disease, meaning they're more dangerous for humans.
"It's kind of like having an isolation room in a hospital. You could maybe do without it — but it's a really good idea to have one," lab director Dr. Jane Christopher-Hennings said. "You don't want to take the risks involved in not having one."
It remains to be seen whether the sought-after renovations will be funded after the design study is complete in the next year, but Oedekoven and SDSU officials are hopeful the state will see it as a worthy investment.
Nathan Sanderson, the governor's director of policy and operations, said Daugaard wants to make sure the state has the facilities in place to meet the needs of the livestock industry and other stakeholders, but stopped short of promising funding.
"I think it's really going to depend on the outcome of the proposal," he said.
Oedekoven, who relies on the lab, has long pushed for renovations, saying that people don't often consider the behind-the-scenes role the lab plays in the health of state residents and their pets as well as food safety.
"So, this is a lot of money that's everyone looking for," he said, "but they need it to do what everyone is expecting them to do."