More than two years into the project, the major media has finally noticed the federal government’s threat to destroy American agriculture.
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.
At the risk of spraining something to pat myself on the back, I was about 18 months ahead of the media’s big boys in reporting this on my radio show in Missouri, where a consortium led by the University of Missouri promoted Columbia as a site for the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). You can listen to my interviews with agro-terror expert Kate Iola at the links below.
In short, what the Department of Homeland Security proposes is either insane, idiotic, or insidious.
The government’s research on foot and mouth disease (FMD) is currently restricted to a Korean War-era laboratory on Plum Island, a small patch of land about three miles off the east coast of Long Island.
There is a good reason to limit FMD research to an island off the mainland where the prevailing winds blow out to sea, away from cattle, pigs, deer, and sheep. The FMD virus has been observed to travel up to 30 miles on the wind. Imagine children in Indianapolis showing up at school on a Monday with the sniffles and kids here in Shelbyville (about 20 miles southeast) getting sick before the end of the week.
While it’s true that the Plum Island facility is aging, it’s only wise to ask whether it makes sense to build a replacement laboratory for this critical research in the midst of America’s livestock industry, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of cattle, hogs, and sheep — and probably wild deer, which fill the gaps between farms and those captive livestock herds.
Two years into the site selection process, it appears that Congress may finally be exercising its constitutional authority — something it does far too seldom — to rein in the president. Not a moment too soon; the government’s own research into the effects of an FMD outbreak reveals a gruesome scenario:
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.
DHS spokespeople assure us that the new laboratory would be totally secure, that procedures and technologies have been refined and improved over the 60 years since Plum Island was built.
No doubt. But humans are still human, and anything that’s built can malfunction or break.
An outbreak of FMD in England last fall was traced to a laboratory run by the UK government’s Institute for Animal Health (and shared by pharmaceutical giants Merck and Sanofi-Aventis, illustrating again at the incestuous relationship between government and Big Pharma). It’s believed that the virus leaked — get this — from a pipe damaged by a tree root.
Closer to home, one of the sites dropped from NBAF consideration, Texas A & M University, saw two accidents in 2006 in which researchers were infected with biological weapons agents, Brucella and Q Fever. Those accidents, by the way, were not reported to the CDC as required by law.
– In mid-2003, a University of New Mexico (UNM) researcher was jabbed with an anthrax-laden needle. The following year, another UNM researcher experienced a needle stick with an unidentified (redacted) pathogenic agent that had been genetically engineered;
– At the Medical University of Ohio, in late 2004 a researcher was infected with Valley Fever (C. immitis), a BSL-3 biological weapons agent. The following summer (2005), a serious lab accident occurred that resulted in exposure of one or more workers to an aerosol of the same agent;
– In mid-2005, a lab worker at the University of Chicago punctured his or her skin with an infected instrument bearing a BSL-3 select agent. It was likely a needle contaminated with either anthrax or plague;
– In October and November of 2005, the University of California at Berkeley received dozens of samples of what it thought was a relatively harmless organism. In fact, the samples contained Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, classified as a BSL-3 bioweapons agents because of its transmission by aerosol. As a result, the samples were handled without adequate safety precautions, until the mistake was discovered. Unlike nearby Oakland Children’s Hospital, which previously experienced an anthrax mixup, UC Berkeley never told the community;
In addition to lab-acquired infections and exposures, other types of dangerous problems have occurred, such as unauthorized research, equipment malfunction, and disregard for safety protocols:
– In February 2005 at the University of Iowa, researchers performed genetic engineering experiments with the select agent tularemia without permission. They included mixing genes from tularemia species and introducing antibiotic resistance. The University reported the incident to the National Institutes of Health, but public disclosure was (to our knowlege) never made;
– In September 2004 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, lab workers at a BSL-3 facility propped open doors of the lab and its anteroom, a major violation of safety procedeures. A alarm that should have sounded did not;
– In March 2005 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lab workers were exposed to tuberculosis when the BSL-3 lab’s exhaust fan failed. Due to deficiences in the lab, a blower continued to operate, pushing disease-laden air out of a safety cabinet and into the room. An alarm, which would have warned of the problem, had been turned off. The lab had been inspected and approved by the US Army one month earlier;
– In December 2005 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City, three lab workers were exposed (converted) to tuberculosis following experiments in a BSL-3 lab. The experiments involved a Madison Aerosol Chamber, the same device used in the February 2006 experiments that resulted in the Texas A&M brucella case;
– In mid-2004, a steam valve from the biological waste treatment tanks failed at Building 41A on the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The building houses BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs. Major damage was caused, and the building was closed for repairs;
The point is this: Plum Island’s location serves as an effective physical barrier of last resort against human error and equipment malfunction. With several miles of ocean and a densely populated urban landscape between the laboratory and America’s livestock, accidental releases of FMD at Plum Island — and the Bush administration admitted to “several” over the last fifty years at Friday’s congressional hearing — have been contained with no damage.
In contrast, satellite images reveal up to half a million head of livestock in the counties around the potential sites for NBAF in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas, animals potentially at risk from a virus that can be carried out of the lab on a researcher’s breath or clothing and then cast to the winds.
Even to a lifelong urbanite with no farming experience, putting a lab devoted to researching a disease that could devastate agribusiness in the middle of farm country is clearly a Very Bad Idea.
How bad? The 2001 FMD outbreak in England cost the British economy 0.2% of GDP that year. In the U.S., that would translate to a $120 billion one-time loss.
British farmers alone lost about £355 million ($700 million), about 20% of U.K. farming income in 2001. In U.S. terms, 20% of annual farm income here is about $66 billion.
Contemplate the effect of a $120 billion hit to an economy already struggling to cope with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, a collapsing dollar, and a real inflation rate nearing 12%.
The long-term impact to farmers whose livelihoods are forever ruined is impossible to estimate.
While research on foot and mouth disease is essential to protect American livestock and a replacement for the aging Plum Island lab is probably overdue, building it in a place surrounded by livestock is an unacceptable risk. One hopes that the administration’s insistence on pushing ahead with this plan is nothing more than political patronage, a half-billion dollar gift to well-connected constructors and research institutions.
Because if this plan isn’t the result of greed or stupidity, we have to consider the only alternate explanation — the chilling possibility that powerful groups actually want this contagion in close proximity to the animals it could infect.