Auburn Vet Med Home to New AHAD Program

by Mike Jernigan

The Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine is home to the new Animal Health and Agro-/Bio-Defense (AHAD) program. The program will complement and extend the impact of ongoing work in this domain as a new element in the national network of U.S. government agencies and land-grant universities focusing primarily on diseases affecting economically important domestic animals that pose a threat to public health or impact national security and economic stability locally, nationally and globally. Made possible through a collaborative Non-Assistance Cooperative Agreement, the overarching program is a five-year partnership with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Initial funding to Auburn is $647,529, with planned funding of over $2.5 million in the next five years.

According to Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol, alumni professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine — who is spearheading AHAD along with Dr. Paul Walz, head of the Department of Pathobiology — Auburn’s AHAD program will be positioned to serve as a southern regional node in the Coalition for Epi Response Engagement Science (CERES) that now includes primarily universities in the Midwest and West. Initially, research in the AHAD space will involve a collaborative partnership with scientists in the USDA-ARS through the U.S. National Poultry Research Center in Athens, Georgia. This will allow subject matter experts at Auburn to take advantage of the expertise of peers in the federal space and will enable access to state-of-the-art biosafety level-3 facilities necessary to safely advance solutions to animal health and agro-/bio-defense challenges. The AHAD/ARS partnership will advance the education and training of next-generation scientists, filling a critical need in this important domain.

The newly establish AHAD program complements and extends on-going advanced training of next-generation scientists at Auburn who will define the workforce at the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), soon to be opened in Manhattan, Kansas, through the USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Scientist Training Program. The NBAF will be the first laboratory facility in the U.S. to provide maximum biocontainment (BSL-4) space to enable study of high-consequence zoonotic diseases affecting large livestock and will support pilot-scale development of vaccines and other medical countermeasures designed to mitigate threats to agrosecurity.

“As part of that nationwide effort, Auburn’s AHAD program will expand the mission and capacity of the College of Veterinary

Medicine’s existing animal health research to include research complementary to the goals of the USDA and other federal agencies charged to ensure national security and public safety,” Bartol explained. “It will work closely with partners in the allied federal space and will leverage the capabilities of a National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN)-supported program established at the Alabama State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, adjacent to the veterinary campus.

“Auburn subject matter experts with significant food animal research experience already include specialists in internal medicine, virology, immunology, molecular diagnostics, vaccinology and zoonotics,” Bartol added. “We hope that establishment of AHAD will further enable expansion of this program to include recruitment of an epidemiologist/informatics specialist and one or more specialists in microbiomics/pathogenomics.”

AHAD will focus on the bio-defense mission, consistent with four strategic areas of the National Biodefense Strategy as identified by USDA-ARS. Those areas include predicting the emergence of pathogens in livestock and associated wildlife; understanding the ecology of exotic, emerging and reemerging pathogens; incident response research; and the development of veterinary medical countermeasures for early detection, prevention and treatment of foreign and emerging animal diseases.

In addition to work with the U.S. National Poultry Research Center in Athens, Georgia, the AHAD program at Auburn will be strengthened by proximity to and engagement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Work will advance the USDA-ARS National Program 103 Action Plan designed to protect and ensure the safety of the nation’s agriculture and food supply through improved disease detection, prevention and control, as well as contribute to this area of national need through service as a training center for the next generation of veterinary researchers and basic animal health scientists.

“Over the years, the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine has established working relationships with a number of federal agencies operating in the agro-/bio-defense space,” Bartol concluded. “AHAD will work closely with its partners to meet the CERES mission to ‘protect and defend America’s agricultural industry against global health threats and provide innovation for food security, now and into the future.’”

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