Efforts to protect the nation from potentially catastrophic animal diseases – some of which are transmissible to humans – will continue with a $21 million package from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Texas A&M University and Kansas State University.

The monies will support the homeland security department’s Center of Excellence for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense at the universities through 2016.

Based at Texas A&M, the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense, or FAZD Center, has led a consortium of universities and institutions in efforts aimed at protecting American agriculture and public health since 2004.

During the next six years, the FAZD Center will co-lead the homeland security department’s zoonotic and animal disease program with the Kansas State University’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases.

Texas A&M’s FAZD Center will focus on developing information and analysis systems designed to provide decision makers with tools to manage foreign animal and zoonotic disease outbreaks. The FAZD Center also will continue work on biological systems and education programs.

“Zoonotic and animal health issues have real-world implications for public health and the economy,” said Tara O’Toole, homeland security undersecretary for science and technology, in a news release. “This award reflects the national need to leverage the country’s top university and intellectual capital to address our security needs.”

The Texas A&M effort will be spearheaded by Tammy Beckham, interim director of the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense. A national search for the permanent center director will begin soon.

Beckham will continue to serve as director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. She previously worked for the U.S. departments of homeland security and agriculture at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Neville Clarke, who has been the FAZD Center director since its inception, has accepted a new position as special assistant to the vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences and the vice president for research.

“I can think of few things more important than supporting Texas A&M’s work to protect Americans from biological warfare and the spread of infectious diseases such as avian flu and foot-and-mouth disease,” said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. “Texas A&M is a national leader when it comes to protecting the homeland, and these funds help them continue the important research that greatly benefits this nation.”

“The work of the centers is important because zoonotic diseases, such as H1N1 flu, spread between humans and animals,” said Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M.

Zoonotic diseases are transmissible between humans and animals. Foreign animal diseases are those which are not found in the United States but could be introduced naturally, accidentally or by terrorist attack.

“Texas A&M and Kansas State are two of the nation’s leading universities in this critical area of research, and we share a common goal of providing the United States with the best possible defense against these potentially catastrophic diseases,” said Jeffrey R. Seemann, Texas A&M vice president for research. “I am pleased that the Department of Homeland Security is continuing the grant for this vital area of work.”

“We in agriculture have the expertise needed to find ways to lessen the impact of zoonotic or foreign animal diseases,” Beckham said. “Our knowledge base can help minimize the impacts on people, animals and the economy. Because 13 percent of all the jobs in the nation are dependent on agriculture, the nation's economy could be severely damaged by such diseases. I am excited about this opportunity and about working with our counterparts at Kansas State.”

Hussey said the FAZD Center recently was honored with the homeland security department’s Impact Award for its work on the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

“The team of scientists working in the center is very impressive,” said Hussey.

Texas A&M and Kansas State researchers will focus their efforts in four areas over the next six years:

– Development of vaccines to counter diseases that could cause catastrophic human illness or seriously impact the economy.

– Development of rapid diagnostic methods for identification and detection of foreign animal, emerging and/or zoonotic diseases.

– Development of models to simulate disease spread and impact.

– Development of educational programs designed to train first responders and producers in recognition and control of these diseases.

For more information about the FAZD Center at Texas A&M, see http://fazd.tamu.edu/.