Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

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.

STAN COX is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008). He can be reached:

Cox wrote this commentary for the Prairie Writers Circle.




















Your Ad Here




Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013). Contact him at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017