Kansas State biosecurity researchers deliver tutorial to Gov. Laura Kelly on COVID-19

By: - August 6, 2020 2:54 pm
Gov. Laura Kelly and Jurgen Richt, a Kansas State University professor, on Thursday discuss COVID-19 research being conducted at the university's Biosecurity Research Institute in Manhattan. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly and Jurgen Richt, a Kansas State University professor, on Thursday discuss COVID-19 research being conducted at the university’s Biosecurity Research Institute in Manhattan. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

MANHATTAN — Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday stepped into the sophisticated Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University to learn more about testing of nasty pathogens in plants and animals capable of threatening agriculture and public health.

In her first trip to the institute since it was under construction a dozen years ago, the governor also was exposed to the institute’s work on COVID-19’s capacity to thrive in Kansas, examination of potential drug therapies to counter the virus and the question of whether mosquitoes would be able to zip around the state infecting people with coronavirus.

“The impact of this research facility goes well beyond the edges of Kansas,” said Kelly, following a tour of a facility unique in the world because it combines capabilities in plants, animals and food products under one roof.

The $54 million laboratory built with private, local, state and federal funding is dedicated to study of infectious diseases that threaten livestock and humans, pathogens that compromise crops, challenges to food processing, and vaccine development and validation.

The work involves scary-sounding pathogens such as swine fever, Rift Valley fever, H1N1, exotic blue tongue, E. coli, anthrax, brucellosis and wheat blast fungus.

Jurgen Richt, professor of veterinary medicine and director of two federally funded centers of excellence at Kansas State, said he acquired samples of COVID-19 in March for a series of tests involving hamsters — mice aren’t susceptible to the virus. The goal was to gather insight into what drugs might be repurposed in the pandemic, he said.

Biosecurity Research Institute director Stephen Higgs outlines research on COVID-19 and other toxic pathogens to Gov. Laura Kelly on a tour of the facility with Kansas State University President Richard Myers. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Biosecurity Research Institute director Stephen Higgs outlines research on COVID-19 and other toxic pathogens to Gov. Laura Kelly on a tour of the facility with Kansas State University President Richard Myers. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

He also studied stability of the coronavirus under spring, summer and fall weather conditions in Kansas. There has been widespread anxiety about a second wave of COVID-19 once temperatures moderate later in the year.

“I tell you, I’m glad it’s summer,” Richt said.

Stephen Higgs, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute named after U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, said he had been part of a project at the Kansas State laboratory to determine whether three types of mosquitoes could transmit the virus to humans.

“We were delighted to get negative results, that it would not multiply in mosquitoes,” Higgs said.

Laboratories on the Kansas State campus have been performing COVID-19 testing for faculty, staff and students. The lag at the university between collection of samples and test results has been reduced to one day, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic governor said the primary election defeat Tuesday of a handful of moderate Republicans in the Kansas Legislature didn’t guarantee her policy agenda would be more difficult to enact.

She said it was too early to know whether prospects of achieving Medicaid expansion in Kansas had been diminished. She held out hope that Democrats would be able to defeat conservative GOP candidates in November.

“There’s also a general election coming up in November,” Kelly said. “We will count noses and votes after that.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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