Keep the Germ Labs Quarantined
Scientists, farmers and government officials for 80 years have kept the U.S. mainland free of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease — a horrific, highly contagious killer of cloven-footed livestock such as cattle. But our government may soon bring the virus onto the mainland on purpose.
The Department of Homeland Security is seeking a home for a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility that would, among other things, take over the work of Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a former Department of Agriculture complex lying off the east end of New York’s Long Island. But Homeland Security proposes to do this on one of five inland sites, all in agricultural regions.
Foot-and-mouth doesn’t mortally infect people. However, other pathogens that DHS plans to work with, including Nipah and Hendra viruses and those that cause African swine fever, Rift Valley fever and Japanese encephalitis, can kill humans as well as livestock.
The waters surrounding Plum Island provide a relatively secure barrier against spread of pathogens. DHS has the option of building the new lab there, and that would be the sensible thing to do.
But government and university officials in five states with big, vulnerable agricultural economies have bought their tickets in the terror lab sweepstakes, vying for a chance to play host to the deadly microbes. The prospect of federal grants and jobs is leading them to put their states’ farms and ranches, and possibly their residents, at risk.
DHS brushes aside charges of recklessness. Its own environmental impact study concluded that the likelihood of escape — which it estimated would cause $2.8 to $4.2 billion in economic damage nationally — is “extremely low,” given appropriate attention to design, construction and operation.
The DHS analysis, released in June, manifests the deep, abiding faith in technology that is woven through American society. But the department was beaten to the punch by an independent government study that relied not on faith but on evidence. In May the U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress that DHS has not shown foot-and-mouth can be studied safely on the mainland. It noted that a 1978 escape from containment on Plum Island was kept in check only by the surrounding waters.
Citing many past releases worldwide, it argued that technology and procedures alone don’t fully protect against escape, because human error can never be eliminated. The subsequent DHS report made no claim that the problem of human error could be solved.
In those heartland communities being examined as possible homes for the viral zoo, residents’ concern goes far beyond “not in my back yard.” They stress that a gamble with such virulent pathogens imperils the whole nation.
Over the past 30 years, I have lived in three of the five candidate communities, but I would no more prefer to see the germ lab plopped down near Flora, Miss., or San Antonio than to have it sited close to friends or family in Manhattan, Kan., Athens, Ga., or Raleigh, N.C.
Last month, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote to the White House urging a halt to what he called a “massive” post-2001 boom in construction of bioterror-oriented labs. The committee found that bungling in labs across the country has already led to releases of dangerous pathogens. Its harshest criticism was aimed at DHS. Wrote Dingell: “What we have learned so far has been frightening.”
But instead of stopping the proliferation of germ labs, the government is willing to let its most controversial department keep herds of infected livestock in big buildings surrounded by people and other animals, with no geographical barriers.
DHS officials say they will decide on a site for the big new lab late this fall or in early 2009. There’s still a chance that foot-and-mouth and the other pathogens will be kept secure in a new facility on Plum Island.
But that will happen only if citizens raise a ruckus. Those who keep the quietest may just find themselves winning the germ jackpot.
That will be the time to start wishing them — and all of us — good luck.
Cox wrote this commentary for the Prairie Writers Circle.