New lab to handle animal diseases

STATE OF THE ART: An artist’s impression of a the $65 million laboratory to protect New Zealand from animal disease outbreaks.
STATE OF THE ART: An artist’s impression of a the $65 million laboratory to protect New Zealand from animal disease outbreaks.

A $65 million high-security laboratory will be built in Upper Hutt to boost New Zealand's ability to cope with large-scale animal disease emergencies, such as foot and mouth.

It was an insurance policy to protect New Zealand's economy, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said yesterday as he announced a new biocontainment facility at the National Centre for Biosecurity and Infectious Disease at Wallaceville.

"Primary industries form the backbone of New Zealand's economy, with more than $20 billion of exports coming from animal products. A major disease outbreak could halt trade, which could only be resumed through extensive laboratory testing."

Such disease threats included anthrax, foot and mouth disease, brucella and avian influenza, he said. "We need to keep ahead of all of these exotic diseases."

Wallaceville had been home to New Zealand's animal disease diagnostics for a century, and was the site of the first veterinarian lab in the southern hemisphere.

But its lab was nearing the end of its 20-year lifespan and needed replacing, Guy said.

The new three-storey building would last another 30 years and would be equipped to meet current international standards.

"I've made biosecurity my No 1 priority. A world-standard diagnostic laboratory such as this is a necessity, not a luxury."

Funding came from a combination of money from this year's Budget, money put aside by the Ministry for Primary Industries for capital expenses, and "reprioritising" within the ministry. Staff numbers were not expected to change, he said.

The replacement of the old lab was welcomed by the ministry's director of investigation, diagnostic centres and response, Veronica Herrera. "It is like an old car. At some stage, we have to replace it."

It was important to prove to international trading partners that New Zealand was free of particular diseases, she said. The laboratory would also be used to test for animal diseases that could cross over into humans, such as avian flu.

Site preparation was due to start next month and building would begin next March, with an expected opening date in early 2018, project manager Mike Hannaway said.

The centre was set up at Wallaceville a decade ago and was a collaboration between four agencies: the Ministry for Primary Industries, Environmental Science and Research (ESR), AgResearch and AsureQuality. The latter two had since moved to a different site.

The Dominion Post