There's one thing that Terry Devitt, a spokesperson for the UW-Madison, wants to emphasize: "We're one of 14 places. It's speculative."
Already, the UW's Kegonsa Research Facility near Stoughton has made the cut from 29 sites initially proposed for a new high-security biodefense lab devoted to deadly animal pathogens.
The proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would study deadly foreign animal diseases like hoof and mouth and swine fever. Devitt says these are diseases that farmers "fret about all the time" because "they would devastate the ag economy."
Since the 1950s, research in this area has been done at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center near Long Island, N.Y. But now Department of Homeland Security wants to shut down that facility and open a new one. The current list of 14 sites will be pared down in early 2007, with final selection in 2008.
Devitt says this research has implications for human health, as many animal diseases can also affect humans. And landing the facility would be "an opportunity to enhance many strengths we have at the university" in terms of existing programs and research. At present, some UW faculty and students go to Plum Island to work and train.
"It would be a big facility," says Devitt, noting that it would occupy a 40-acre tract and employ about 400 people. But beyond providing the site, the UW would have no role in overseeing or operating the facility, which would be jointly managed by the Department of Homeland Security and USDA.
The new facility would be Level 4, the highest Biosafety security rating; Plum Island is rated Level 3. According to a 2005 New York Times article, many Long Island residents and environmental groups have opposed raising the level there, "fearing that deadly viruses could escape."
But Daryl Buss, dean of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, which made the application, says there is "no instance of a disease organism escaping" from similar laboratories located throughout the U.S. and other western countries. He says these facilities are "very highly specialized" in design, with redundant backup systems, and are "not considered attractive targets for terrorists."
Buss is not sure what kind or how many animals might be housed at the facility. He assumes it would be a mix of "traditional laboratory animals" like rats and mice, and domestic farm animals. He says landing the facility would provide Wisconsin farmers and ag authorities with easier access to diagnostic testing for animal diseases. They could also benefit from its research into "strategies to either treat or prevent illness."
The university, says Devitt, has just begun to contact local officials and "first responders." An informational open house is planned on Thursday, Nov. 30, at the town of Dunn town hall, 4156 County Highway B, from 7 to 9 p.m.
According to a Homeland Security press release, one factor that will be taken into account in making a final site selection is "community acceptance."