During the Avian Influenza outbreak in the spring of 2015 that affected 32 million birds and resulted in a $1.2 billion economic hit to Iowa, it became even more apparent how necessary a new facility would be for the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (VDL). At the time of the outbreak, the VDL was running multiple shifts and conducting testing seven days per week in order to keep up with the volume of case submissions. The VDL played a critical role in helping the poultry industry respond by providing quality and timely test results. Now that the outbreak has subsided, the VDL is helping the industry rebuild while preparing for future animal disease threats.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of fourteen legislators and 3 staff toured the VDL and saw the responsibilities undertaken at the lab firsthand.
"While on one hand we should be impressed with how much is being done at the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab with such clear limitations in facilities," said Senator Nate Boulton (D-Des Moines), "we also have to recognize that having a world-class facility is essential for us to respond in an outbreak or crisis that could threaten our food supply and agricultural economy. We should take this opportunity to invest in both education and agriculture that will absolutely pay great dividends long into our state's future."
Interim College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Pat Halbur was especially pleased by the turnout.
"I sincerely appreciate the legislators taking time to come see the lab," Halbur said. "I think it was very good for them to experience the essential role the VDL plays in preventing and responding to animal health challenges that have a major impact on the state's economy and international trade of animal products produced in Iowa."
"People have heard about the land-grant mission," Halbur continued. "There's probably no better example of that than what occurs every day at the VDL. This group of 150 faculty and staff helps solve 80,000+ cases per year. We also use those cases as some of the best teaching material in the world to educate future veterinarians. Occasionally we don't find an answer and then those cases become applied research projects of high relevance for Iowa farmers, pet owners, wildlife conservationists, and families."
While a number of legislators have visited the VDL over the last couple years, never has a large, bipartisan group taken a closer look at the
needs of the facility
"The VDL has been extremely important to all of Iowa, especially animal agriculture," said Representative Norlin Mommsen (R-DeWitt), Chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. "Now it is extremely important that the legislature do everything possible to help them continue their mission."
Over the past six years, the caseload at the VDL has doubled. Additionally, staffing levels have increased significantly to keep pace with the influx of cases. As a result, the VDL's operations budget has also grown exponentially in response to the demand for diagnostic testing and research; however, state funding has remained flat.
The layout and ventilation system of the severely overcrowded 42 year-old building poses real concerns with regard to biosafety and biocontainment. A recent space assessment identified the need for a 30% increase in square feet over the current facility to run the VDL properly. A new facility would optimize functionality, address current hazards, and accommodate growth within the VDL. The facility would also be isolated from the animal hospitals.
Without a new facility, there is not enough space to respond to another outbreak such as Foot and Mouth Disease, Hog Cholera, or African Swine Fever. An updated standalone facility is critical to protecting animal health and food safety while serving the state's $32 billion animal agriculture industry.
As a result, Iowa State is requesting state funding of $100 million over five years to build a new facility.
"We don't know when we're going to have the next major disease outbreak," Halbur said. "It very well could be tomorrow."
A group of bipartisan legislators tour the VDL.