Homeland Security gets an earful in Congress over a potentially risky move
Source: By Jennifer Landes ~ East Hampton Star
Concern in Congress over the transfer of research on live foot-and-mouth virus from the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to one of five mainland sites competing for a new agro-terrorism research facility might work in the East End’s favor, according to Representative Tim Bishop.
“The ideal outcome for the East End of Long Island is that Plum Island remain a [Biosafety Level 3] facility, conducting its current research,” he said. “I believe we should keep that kind of research on an island as mandated under current law.”
Last Thursday, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the potential move. Representatives of the Government Accountability Office were critical of the research that the Department of Homeland Security used to determine that moving such research to the mainland would not increase the risk of an outbreak. They read from their report on the research, which was released at the hearing.
In a statement, Senator Charles Schumer said the report was “a troubling window into D.H.S.’s flawed decision-making process and shows that D.H.S. should have left Plum Island a Biosafety Level 3 research center studying animal and plant diseases. Instead, for suspect reasons, they created the false choice of closing it down or pursuing an unwanted and unwarranted Biosafety Level 4 facility, which the delegation and the community will continue to oppose.”
Nancy Kingsbury, a research director for the accountability office, said at the hearing that the Department of Homeland Security “had not conducted or commissioned any study to determine whether foot-and-mouth disease could be studied safely on the mainland.”
Instead, it used a study from 2002 that looked only at the feasibility of relocating the facility. “That’s a different question than if it can be done safely . . . there was no risk assessment,” and no study of the history of virus releases and the difficulties involved in the containment of large animals, she said.
Although Ms. Kingsbury acknowledged that “location in general has no particular advantage” in whether a virus is released, “it can help in the control in the spread of pathogens.”
Plum Island, which is 1.5 miles off the North Fork’s Orient Point, has for 50 years been the site of study of the most contagious animal diseases known. With 7 types and 80 subtypes, foot-and-mouth disease affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, deer, pigs, and sheep. Not only is the research conducted off the mainland, but it is also done in an immediate area of very small populations of livestock. When Germany and Denmark faced similar decisions regarding upgrades to their facilities, they decided to continue to confine the study of live viruses to islands, Ms. Kingsbury noted.
Mr. Bishop said the argument for moving a research lab closer to the livestock it is serving holds that it would then be easier and faster to assess tissue samples, as opposed to trying to get them to a remote site such as Plum Island. It is not something he favors.
Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security announced that a facility would be built to replace Plum Island and conduct further research on Biosafety Level 3-rated diseases, as well as life-threatening diseases that can be transferred to humans and for which no cure is known. These have a Biosafety Level 4 rating.
The proposed $450 million facility would not study diseases such as anthrax and Ebola, but would examine those already at Plum Island, including foot-and-mouth and swine fever. It would add other Biosafety Level 3 diseases, such as African swine fever, Rift Valley fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and Japanese encephalitis, to the list of those studied. Rift Valley fever and Japanese encephalitis could affect humans.
The facility would also study the Nipah and Hendra viruses, which are contagious and can be fatal in humans. They require the higher Biosafety Level 4 precautions, which include restricted access and the placement of labs in strictly controlled areas within a building that is completely isolated.
The Nipah virus caused respiratory disease and encephalitis in people in Malaysia and Singapore. There are no known drug therapies or countermeasures that are known to work, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It was discovered in 1999. The Hendra virus, once called equine morbillivirus, was first isolated in 1994. It caused respiratory and neurological disease in horses and humans in Australia.
There are now five states vying for the lab — Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas. According to department representatives, Plum Island is also in contention. It is considered a “no action” alternative, which means that it could continue its current research or become the site of the new lab.
All six sites will be assessed for the department’s environmental impact statement, which involves costs, limitations, and benefits. A rough rendering of what a new Biosafety Level 4 lab would look like, specific to Plum Island, will be included with renderings of the other potential sites.
Because the condition of Plum Island’s facilities has deteriorated over the years, $24 million was approved last year and a contractor was hired to upgrade many of them. The department has said such improvements are necessary just to continue activities there while a new lab is built.
If it is determined that the mainland is not an appropriate site for a new facility as envisioned by the department, Mr. Bishop said, the upgrades represent a “significant investment in plant and would be an adequate investment” to continue Plum Island’s operations at their current level well into the future.
“My endorsement is to maintain Plum Island as currently configured and upgrade it to keep the jobs on Plum Island and construct the [National Bio and Agro Defense Facility] somewhere else. There are five sites aggressively pursuing it.”
At the same time, the Bush administration added a provision to the recently passed Farm Bill that gives the Department of Homeland Security authority over where a new facility will go, rather than sharing that decision with the Department of Agriculture. Some Democrats have called this ill-advised and politically motivated.
Mr. Bishop, however, said he did not see any political motivation behind the administration’s move. “That can be traced back to the original decisions to create the Department of Homeland Security and restructure other departments to take those responsibilities out of existing departments as a cohesive approach.”
He called the relationship between Homeland Security officials and the scientists from the Department of Agriculture “an uneasy marriage.” Still, he said, “I have found the D.H.S. people very responsive to any issue we’ve raised regarding Plum Island.” He reiterated that he has been assured that the department does not think a Biosafety Level 4 lab is appropriate for Plum Island.