by Barbara L. Minton
The nation’s food supply may soon be under significant threat as the result of a Bush administration decision to move its research on one of the most contagious animal diseases from an isolated island laboratory to the U.S. mainland, placing it near herds of livestock.
According to an April 11th Associated Press article by Larry Margasak, concerns about a catastrophic outbreak of hoof and mouth disease have prompted some in Congress to demand internal documents they believe highlight the risks and consequences of this decision. An epidemic of this dreaded disease could devastate the livestock industry.
Lawmakers have already received one such report from the Homeland Security Department, which combines commercial satellite images and federal farm data to reveal the proximity to livestock herds of the five locations under consideration for the new lab. The numbers of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the locations under consideration range from 132,900 at the site near Atlanta, Georgia, to 542,507 at the site near Manhattan, Kansas.
Research on diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans will be included at this new laboratory, the National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility. The rationale for the new laboratory is that the current facility, in Plum Island, does not have the security in place for this higher-level usage. The Department of Agriculture ran the Plum Island lab until 2003, when it was turned over to the Homeland Security Department because preventing an outbreak has become part of the nation’s biological defense program. Other locations being considered are Butner, N.C.; San Antonio, Tx; and Flora, Miss.
Although rarely a threat to humans, hoof-and-mouth virus is deadly to animals. It can be transported on workers breath, clothes, or vehicles when they leave the lab. It is so contagious that it has been confined to Plum, Island, New York for over 50 years where it is far from commercial livestock. The current location, 100 miles northeast of New York City in the Long Island Sound, is accessible only by ferry or helicopter.
Plum Island researchers work on detection of disease, epidemic control strategies, vaccines and drugs, tests of imported animals, and training of professionals. Researchers who work with the live virus are not permitted to own susceptible animals at their homes, and they are required to wait at least a week before attending outside events where such animals might be encountered, such as circuses or rodeos.
According to the article, a simulated outbreak of the disease was part of a 2002 government exercise called Crimson Sky. “It ended with fictional riots in the streets after the simulation’s National Guardsmen were ordered to kill tens of millions of farm animals, so many that troops ran out of bullets.” The government said it would have been forced to dig a ditch 25 miles long in Kansas to bury the carcasses.
Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan. portrayed the president in the simulation, and recalls what a mess it was. Nevertheless, he now supports moving the government’s new lab to his state, because “It will mean jobs” and spur research and development, he says.
An epidemic of the disease in 2001 produced devastation to Britain’s livestock industry, and resulted in the government slaughter of 6 million sheep, cows and pigs. A less serious outbreak last year was thought to have been caused by viral contamination from a site shared by a government research center and a vaccine maker. Other recent outbreaks occurred in Taiwan and China.
Diseased animals weaken and lose weight. Milk cows stop producing and remain highly infectious, even if they survive the virus. If evidence in a single cow suggests an outbreak in the U.S., emergency plans call for the government to immediately shut down all exports and movement of livestock. Herds would be quarantined, and controlled slaughter would begin to help halt the spread of the disease.
Although the British outbreak indicated that the virus can escape from a modern day facility and wreak economic havoc, the Bush administration supports belief that modern laboratory safety rules are adequate to prevent an outbreak. The Homeland Security Department is also convinced that it can operate a lab on the mainland safely, citing improved containment procedures at high-security labs.
The former director of the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, Dr. Roger Breeze, says that research ought to be kept away from cattle populations and, ideally, placed where the public has already accepted this type of research. If the government is unwilling to expand and update the Plum Island site, he suggests the location of the facility at the Atlanta campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., the location of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for infectious diseases. Another possibility he suggests is on Long Island, where there is no commercial livestock industry, and where most of the current Plum Island employees could be retained.
When asked about the administration’s choice of sites near livestock, Breeze says, “It seems a little odd. It goes against the... safety program of the last 50 years.”
The last outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease on the U.S. mainland was in 1929. “The horrific prospect of exterminating potentially millions of animals is not something this country’s ready for,” says Dr. Floyd Horn, former head of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service.
Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee also express worry about a move to the mainland. Rep. John Dingle, D-Mich, chairman of the committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, have threatened to subpoena records they claim Homeland Security is withholding from Congressional inspection. Of particular interest are the reports about Crimson Sky, an internal review of a 1978 release of hoof-and-mouth disease on Plum Island, and reports about releases of the virus on the island during the past century.
If these reports are not turned over as requested, the committee leaders warned in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary, Chertoff, they will vote to issue a congressional subpoena.
Cattle farmers and residents are divided over the proposal. Community activist, Grady Thrasher is worried about an outbreak from a research lab, and has started a petition drive against moving the lab to Georgia, citing the great risks involved. “There’s no way you can balance that equation by putting this in the middle of a community where it will do the most harm,” Thrasher said. “The community is now aroused, so I think we have a majority against this.”
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