Published On: Fri, Nov 26th, 2010

Transplanting Plum Island to Kansas: is the country’s food supply at risk?

The controversial animal disease research laboratory, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on the relatively remote island off the tip of Long Island will be moving to the heartland of America, Manhattan, Kansas, sometime on or around 2014.

Public domain photo/Keith Weller

Public domain photo/Keith Weller

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) will be planted on Kansas State University and according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it will not be a laboratory of bioweapons saying that anthrax, plague, ebola and smallpox will NOT be studied there at the proposed state of the art BSL-4 lab. Ok, I’ll take the DHS at their word for the moment because my concern is not human pathogens, but animal pathogens.

There are eight animal and livestock diseases that will be studied at the facility; Nipah virus, Hendra virus, African swine fever, Rift Valley fever, Japanese Encephalitis virus, Foot and Mouth disease (FMD), Classical Swine fever and Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia.

So being in the heartland of America where there is hundreds of thousands if not millions of cattle and swine, based on previous safety and security issues from Plum Island and other facilities, how can we be sure that this will not devastate our food supply and economy?

I want to focus on Foot and Mouth Disease.

We know there were safety breaches at the old facility on Plum Island where even the Bush Administration acknowledged issues.

The most publicized was the 1978 where FMD was found in cattle outside the facility in holding pens. How devastating could something like this be to the livestock industry in Kansas and surrounding states?

And this does not include the numerous “in-house” incidents of contamination of FMD within the facility that Jay Cohen, undersecretary for Science and Technology acknowledged. FMD is so contagious that even a minor escape of the virus could be devastating to our livestock.

And these are just the cases that were reported. In Michael Carroll’s book, Lab 257, other safety mistakes are documented.

And Plum Island didn’t have the most impeccable record concerning security breaches either. In a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, in July 2003, a year after Homeland Security had assumed control of Plum Island, eight foreign scientists were working in its biocontainment area without completed background investigations. The scientists were neither escorted nor monitored while in that sensitive area.

Working with BSL-4 pathogens requires extensive background checks and according to the USDA, background checks are done every 5 years. However, after a personnel record check it was found that a dozen employees, including several who work directly with serious pathogens hadn’t had a background check in over a decade.

And safety and security breaches happen at facilities outside the US also. Just a few years ago an outbreak of FMD is Surrey, England occurred and the strain of the virus was linked to a government laboratory near Pirbright.

There are a half dozen BSL-4 labs in the country. These labs handle the most dangerous pathogens known to man. However, only Plum Island is authorized to handle the extremely contagious in animals FMD.

In a DHS powerpoint presentation, safety and security for the new Kansas facility would be based on USDA and CDC regulations. But even with all the regulations in the world, things happen. Take the CDC itself as an example. Just a few years ago while a new BSL-4 facility at the CDC was being prepared for it’s unveiling, a lightning strike wiped out its power and the backup generators never came on. CDC officials maintained that even if the lab had been operating, there were enough safety controls to prevent pathogens from escaping. Does that make you feel more assured?

Other incidents have happened at facilities in Ft. Detrick, Seattle and Texas A&M.

What about employees accidentally transferring FMD out of the facility? At the current Plum Island location, employees are not allowed to have pets, cannot have contact with animals for one week after leaving the lab and other rules. Again, how assuring does this sound? At least at Plum Island, most employees live in the city. Employees at the future will certainly reside in a more rural setting.

So I guess the question is, is moving a facility working with Foot and Mouth Disease in the middle of livestock country the wisest option? I am not implying anything devious is afoot, but to err is human and certain errors could be devastating.

According to the USDA, Foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease is a severe, highly contagious viral disease of cattle and swine. It also affects sheep, goats, deer, and other cloven-hooved ruminants. FMD is not a threat to people and no human health risks are associated with the disease. FMD is caused by a virus. Signs of illness can appear after an incubation period of 1 to 8 days, but often develop within 3 days. There are seven known types and more than 60 subtypes of the FMD virus. Vesicles (blisters) followed by erosions in the mouth or on the feet and the resulting excessive salivation or lameness are the best known signs of the disease. FMD, however, can be confused with several similar diseases, including vesicular stomatitis and swine vesicular disease. Whenever mouth or feet blisters or other typical signs are observed and reported, laboratory tests must be completed to determine whether the disease causing them is FMD.

Though the virus has a relatively low mortality rate of 2-5%, to stop the rapid spread of the disease, slaughtering of large quantities of animals is required.

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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