Plum Island Move

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger: Rachael Masset, Undergraduate in Microbiology

There is blood everywhere - spewing out of every possible opening of the body. A once beloved chimp lies motionless. A sample is collected and rushed to an electron microscope. Only the sound of the scientist's own heart beat is heard over the gentle hum of the microscope in the pitch black room. Across the viewing screen, a particle emerges. Not just an average particle, but death itself staring the scientist straight in the eye. With a hitch in his breath, he stands stunned at what he sees. He is both amazed at this microscopic particle's ability and afraid for his life. Without a second more hesitation, he sprints down the hall to tell his boss that the Ebola virus has been isolated within the borders of the United States, in the city that holds all the power, Washington DC.

Books like the Hot Zone by Richard Preston have been providing compelling stories about some of the world’s most dangerous diseases for years. But it's not only the microbes and diseases themselves that inspire such thrillers. It's also the places, the laboratories where scientists work with these organisms to uncover the secrets of disease, that set conspiracy theorists drooling. One of these places is Plum Island, 100 miles off the coast of New York, 840-acres of habitat populated by seabirds, sea turtles, seals, and one high-security, federal research lab called the Animal Disease Center.

The USDA opened the facility in 1954 to study and combat foreign, contagious animal diseases, including viruses of swine and the foot-and-mouth disease virus. The Department of Homeland Security currently oversees the facility, and recently, there has been talk about moving the research conducted on Plum Island to a facility in Manhattan, Kansas. There is a push to relocate the lab to a new, upgraded facility as the old one is becoming outdated. This new facility would have the capability to expand research on foreign animal diseases as well as emerging and zoonotic diseases. With a greater pool of research, there can be an expansion of vaccination developments to help protect domestic animals from diseases that have yet to invade the U.S. Some may see this as unnecessary, since we do not know when or if an epidemic will ever break out. But why take the risk? If proper preventive measures are in place and protocols scripted, we could avoid a catastrophic event.

A great concern for moving an isolated facility to the heart of the country, is whether or not the microorganisms could be confined behind the building's walls. The proposed laboratory, which would be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, would have Biological Safety Level 4 (BSL-4) capabilities. BSL-4 labs are designed for the study of diseases that have no vaccines or treatment options or those whose transmission is unknown. In order for a BSL-4 laboratory to meet standards, the CDC has implemented strict guidelines that must be followed: all materials must pass through an airlock or autoclave before entry; all glassware should be replaced with plastic; the use of sharp instruments is to be restricted; any procedure used is required to have limited splashes or spills; and personnel must pass through a clothing change room and a decontamination shower before entering and leaving the lab. Facility workers do not take the risk of exposing the outside world lightly, and a multitude of protocols are in place to prevent accidental “leakage” of a deadly disease.

An example of a disease that would be studied at this new facility would be foot-and-mouth disease. Homeland security has declared this viral infection as a BSL-3 pathogen because it causes serious issues in livestock but not to humans. Foot-and-mouth disease affects young cloven-hoofed animals (those with divided hoofs) such as cattle, sheep, and pigs. A fever first emerges followed by fluid filled blisters on the heel, between the toes, mammary glands, mouth, and palate. The foot sores make it painful to walk and the mouth sores make it painful to eat, so the animal does not retrieve necessary food and water and starves. Once an outbreak starts, it is very difficult to stop as it is spread quickly through breath, mucus, feces, and milk. There is no known cure for the disease, so no aid can be given to the animal. The rapid loss of livestock is detrimental to the economy for multiple reasons such as an end of trade relations and loss of products that can be sold for profit.

Since a large portion of agriculture deals with livestock, and agriculture is a major industry for our country, there needs to be procedures to combat diseases like foot-and-mouth to save our nation from disaster. Facilities like the one on Plum Island work to develop vaccines against all types of strains to prevent a crash in our agricultural industry. Could it be dangerous to move this facility to the heart of our agricultural community? Possibly. Do the benefits outweigh the risks of an unlikely escape? I think so.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Plum Island Image: Keith Weller

Foot-and-Mouth Image: USDA