Fears arise over plan to move foot-and-mouth disease lab to mainland
By LARRY MARGASAK
Associated Press Writer

updated 5:56 p.m. ET, Fri., April. 11, 2008

WASHINGTON – The only U.S. facility allowed to research the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease experienced several accidents with the feared virus, the Bush administration acknowledged Friday.

A 1978 release of the virus into cattle holding pens on Plum Island, N.Y., triggered new safety procedures. While that incident was previously known, the Homeland Security Department told a House committee there were other accidents inside the government’s laboratory.

The accidents are significant because the administration is likely to move foot-and-mouth research from the remote island to one of five sites on the U.S. mainland near livestock herds. This has raised concerns about the risks of a catastrophic outbreak of the disease, which does not sicken humans but can devastate the livestock industry.

Skeptical Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded to see internal documents from the administration that they believe highlight the risks and consequences of moving the research. The live virus has been confined to Plum Island for more than a half-century to keep it far from livestock.

The 1978 accidental release “resulted in the FMD virus in some of the cattle in holding pens outside the laboratory facility,” Jay Cohen, a senior Homeland Security official, wrote in response to the committee.

“Detailed precautions were taken immediately to prevent the spread of the disease from Plum Island, and new precautionary procedures were introduced.”

Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology, said there also have been “in-laboratory incidents” — contamination of foot-and-mouth virus within the facility but not outside it — at Plum Island since 1954. That was the year the Agriculture Department acquired the land and started the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

One government report, produced last year and already provided to lawmakers by the Homeland Security Department, combined commercial satellite images and federal farm data to show the proximity to livestock herds of locations that have been considered for the new lab.

“Would an accidental laboratory release at these locations have the potential to affect nearby livestock?” asked the nine-page document. It did not directly answer the question.

Below- Plum Island Animal Disease Center Building 257, closed in 1995, sits fenced and boarded up on Plum Island off of the east coast of New York’s Long Island.

 

Bush administration may move foot-and-mouth research to mainland, near livestock
The Associated Press
Friday, April 11, 2008

WASHINGTON: The Bush administration is likely to move its research on one of the most contagious animal diseases from an isolated island laboratory to the U.S. mainland near herds of livestock, raising concerns about a catastrophic outbreak.

Skeptical Democrats in Congress are demanding to see internal documents they believe highlight the risks and consequences of the decision. An epidemic of the disease, foot and mouth, which only affects animals, could devastate the livestock industry.

One such government report, produced last year and already turned over to lawmakers by the Homeland Security Department, combined commercial satellite images and federal farm data to show the proximity to livestock herds of locations that have been considered for the new lab. “Would an accidental laboratory release at these locations have the potential to affect nearby livestock?” asked the nine-page document. It did not directly answer the question.

A simulated outbreak of the disease, part of an earlier U.S. government exercise called “Crimson Sky”  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. In the exercise, the government said it would have been forced to dig a ditch in Kansas 25 miles (40 kilometers) long to bury carcasses. In the simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages.

“It was a mess,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who portrayed the president in the 2002 exercise. Now, like other lawmakers from the states under consideration, Roberts supports moving the government’s new lab to his state. Manhattan, Kansas, is one of five mainland locations under consideration. “It will mean jobs” and spur research and development, he says.

The other possible locations for the new National Bio-and Agro-Defense Facility are Athens, Georgia; Butner, North Carolina; San Antonio; and Flora, Mississippi. The new site could be selected later this year, and the lab would open by 2014. The numbers of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the finalists range from 542,507 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia, according to the Homeland Security study.

Foot-and-mouth virus can be carried on a worker’s breath or clothes, or vehicles leaving a lab, and is so contagious it has been confined to Plum Island, New York, for more than a half-century, far from commercial livestock. The existing lab is 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of New York City in the Long Island Sound, accessible only by ferry or helicopter. Researchers there who work with the live virus are not permitted to own animals at home that would be susceptible, and they must wait at least a week before attending outside events where such animals might perform, such as a circus.

The White House says modern safety rules at labs are sufficient to avoid any outbreak. But incidents in Britain have demonstrated that the foot-and-mouth virus can cause remarkable economic havoc, and that the virus can escape from a facility.

An epidemic in 2001 devastated Britain’s livestock industry, as the government slaughtered 6 million sheep, cows and pigs. Last year, in a less serious outbreak, Britain’s health and safety agency concluded the virus probably escaped from a site shared by a government research center and a vaccine maker. Other outbreaks have occurred in Taiwan in 1997 and China last year and in 2006.

If even a single cow signals an outbreak in the U.S., emergency plans permit the government to shut down all exports and movement of livestock. Herds would be quarantined, and a controlled slaughter could be started to stop the disease from spreading.

The Homeland Security Department is convinced it can safely operate the lab on the mainland, saying containment procedures at high-security labs have improved. The livestock industry is divided. Some experts, including the former director at the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, say research ought to be kept away from cattle populations and, ideally, placed where the public already has accepted dangerous research.

The former director, Dr. Roger Breeze, suggested the facility could be safely located at the Atlanta campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, home of The United States Army Medical Research Institute for infectious diseases.

The new facility will add research on diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans. The Plum Island facility is not secure enough to handle that higher-level research.

Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee also are worried about the lab’s likely move to the mainland. The chairman, Democratic Rep. John Dingell, and the head of the investigations subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, are threatening to subpoena records they say Homeland Security is withholding from Congress. Those records include reports about “Crimson Sky,” an internal review about a publicized 1978 accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease on Plum Island and reports about any previously undisclosed virus releases on the island during the past half century.

The lawmakers set a deadline of Friday for the administration to turn over reports they requested. Otherwise, they warned in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, they will arrange a vote next week to issue a congressional subpoena.

A new facility at Plum Island is technically a possibility. Signs point to a mainland site, however, after the administration spent considerable time and money scouting new locations. Also, there are financial concerns about operating from a location accessible only by ferry or helicopter.

The Homeland Security Department says laboratory animals would not be corralled outside the new facility, and they would not come into contact with local livestock. All work with the virus and lab waste would be handled securely and any material leaving would be treated and monitored to ensure it was sterilized.

“Containment technology has improved dramatically since foot-and-mouth disease prohibitions were put in place in 1948,” Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

Cattle farmers and residents are divided over the proposal to move the lab to the mainland.

“I would like to believe we could build a facility, with the knowledge and technology we have available, that would be basically safe from a bio-security standpoint,” said John Stuedemann, a cattle farmer near Athens, Ga., and a former scientist at the Agriculture Department.

Nearby, community activist Grady Thrasher in Athens is worried about an outbreak from a research lab. Thrasher, a former securities lawyer, has started a petition drive against moving the lab to Georgia, saying the risks are too great.

“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.”

In North Carolina, commissioners in Granville County originally endorsed moving the lab to their area but later withdrew support. Officials from Homeland Security ultimately met with residents for more than four hours, but the commissioners have taken no further action to back the facility.

“Accidents are going to happen 50 years down the road or one year down the road,” said Bill McKellar, a pharmacist in Butner, N.C., who leads an opposition group that has formed a research committee of lawyers and doctors.

 

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