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WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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, N.Y., for more than a half-century — far from commercial livestock. The existing lab is 100 miles 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.
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 long to bury carcasses. In the simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages.
Plum Island suffered a long string of potentially disastrous accidents, including the escape of the foot-and-mouth pathogen from containment areas in 1978.
That fiasco led to the slaughter of all livestock on the island. Carroll's stomach-churning account of the killing, dismemberment, and incineration of hundreds of goats, sheep, horses, and pigs -- nonstop through an entire bloody weekend -- provides a preview of what might be necessary if pathogens escape from a heartland NBAF. (And with an urban lab, human quarantine could well follow.) Carroll added the astonishing revelation that researchers took the risk of saving 60 sheep from the slaughter during the "kill weekend", so that they could be inoculated in the open air with the Rift Valley fever virus -- a germ far more dangerous to humans than is foot-and-mouth.
National Bio-and Agro-Defense Facility
If a FMD outbreak occurred in the United States other agricultural sectors related to livestock and dairy would likely feel the impact. For example, according to livestock industry officials, every other bushel of U.S. grain goes to animal feed. A significant drop in demand for feed (caused by extensive cattle and swine herd depopulation) could further depress grain prices, now at historically low levels.
The Agriculture Department ran the Plum Island lab until 2003. It was turned over to the Homeland Security Department because preventing an outbreak is now part of the nation's biological defense program.
Plum Island researchers work on detecting the disease, controlling epidemics using vaccines and drugs, testing imported animals and training professionals.
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.
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.
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 for more than a half-century, far from commercial livestock. The existing lab is 100 miles northeast of New York City in the Long Island Sound. 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 one week after work before attending outside events where such animals might perform, such as a circus.