April 12, 2008

Dangerous Virus Research Coming to America

The Bush Administration is likely to move its research on foot-and-mouth virus from an isolated lab in the Long Island Sound to the U.S. mainland near herds of livestock, prompting concerns about a catastrophic outbreak.

The existing lab is 100 miles northeast of New York City and 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.

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, N.Y., for more than a half-century"”from commercial livestock.

Plum Island researchers work on detection of the disease, strategies to control epidemics including vaccines and drugs, tests of imported animals to ensure they are free of the virus and training of professionals.

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

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

A government report last year 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. The document couldn't directly answer questions such as "Would an accidental laboratory release at these locations have the potential to affect nearby livestock?"

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 simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages.

"It was a mess," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who portrayed the president in the 2002 exercise.

Robert's home state of Kansas is one of five mainland locations under consideration for the new lab. Other possible locations for the new National Bio-and Agro-Defense Facility are Athens, Ga.; Butner, N.C.; San Antonio; and Flora, Miss.

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 devastating economic havoc and that the virus can escape from a facility.

An epidemic devastated Britain's livestock industry in 2001, as the government slaughtered 6 million sheep, cows and pigs. Other outbreaks have occurred in Taiwan in 1997 and China last year and in 2006.

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

The former head of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service said Americans are not prepared for a foot-and-mouth outbreak that has been avoided on the mainland since 1929.

"The horrific prospect of exterminating potentially millions of animals is not something this country's ready for," said Dr. Floyd Horn.

A new facility at Plum Island is technically a possibility, but a mainland site is most likely, after the administration spent considerable time and money scouting new locations.

According to the Homeland Security Department, 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 sterilization.

"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.

Grady Thrasher, a former securities lawyer and community activist in Athens, is worried about an outbreak from a research lab. He 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.

Bill McKellar, a pharmacist in Butner, N.C., leads an opposition group that has formed a research committee of lawyers and doctors.

"Accidents are going to happen 50 years down the road or one year down the road," McKellar said.

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.