about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

06 Nov 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2002.

Bioterrorism Fears Revive Waning Interest In Agricultural Disease Lab on Plum Island


GREENPORT, N.Y. -- Microbiologists at the Plum Island federal laboratory, a short boat ride from this Long Island village, urgently analyzed threatening letters received recently by three farmers in Florida and New York. "This envelope contains foot-and-mouth disease," the anonymous notes warned.

The specter was chilling. Eradicated in the U.S. in 1929, the only strains of foot-and-mouth disease extant in this country are locked in giant freezers at this 840-acre lab, set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1954 "as America's first line of defense against foreign animal diseases."

Plum Island scientists declared the letters a hoax and got a chuckle over how they were delivered. Though it is the most contagious disease on earth, foot-and-mouth doesn't endanger human beings as anthrax mailings did. "The cows aren't going to be opening the mail," says Thomas McKenna, the island's assistant director.

Until very recently, it seemed that the lab's mission had run its course. Some scientists and government officials wanted it shut down, arguing that with the threat of foot-and-mouth disease so remote, Plum Island didn't justify its $16.5-million annual budget. Some Long Islanders hostile to the facility have long suspected that the former Army base is an incubator for germ warfare.

Now, surrounded by armed guards, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, led by a former Army commander, is at the center of the growing battle against "agroterrorism."

"They are as important to homeland security as the military," says Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The trade group wants the Defense Department to subsidize Plum Island, essentially a self-sufficient city, with its own fire department and power plant but no residents.

Showering repeatedly to kill germs as they move between windowless labs, Plum Island scientists have worked on vaccines for foot-and-mouth and a range of foreign diseases. Mainly the illnesses just afflict animals. But Congress is considering expanding the lab's charter to include diseases deadly to humans, resurrecting a plan that was batted back two years ago by worried neighbors.

Droves of veterinarians have gone through the complex to study the painful lesions that hobble sheep, cows, deer and other cloven-hoofed animals. Big guns from the dairy industry all gathered on Plum Island last year to talk about protecting milk and cheese.

[Map of Plum Island's Location]

Plum Island studies more than 40 other foreign animal diseases, such as hog cholera and African swine fever. The freezers also hold polio, Rift Valley Fever and a smattering of other "zoonotic" diseases that can be transmitted to people by animals. Two years ago, Plum Island scientists analyzed horses that were dying on Long Island and found the West Nile virus that mysteriously turned up in mosquitoes in the New York area.

The Plum Island scientists work in a complex of elaborate containment and purification systems. Before entering, they are required to strip naked and put on plastic clothing. Glasses must be soaked. Papers have to be faxed, not mailed. There is no eating, drinking, smoking or chewing gum. The island has no wildlife, and no animal leaves Plum Island alive. Even the deer that swim onto the island are killed. People at the Agriculture Department call Plum Island "Alcatraz for Animal Disease."

Though farmers have been bracing for foot-and-mouth disease since last spring, when an outbreak ravaged the United Kingdom's livestock industry, nobody worried about its being spread here intentionally, until Sept. 11. "Every farmer woke up to the fact that animals, too, might be terrorist targets," says Tom Camerlo, who beefed up security at his 1,200-acre dairy farm in Florence, Colo., to make it less of a target.

Broader Push

Plum Island is part of a broader push to protect the vast food-related economy from terror. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is a fixture at homeland security meetings. Her department is adding hundreds of new inspectors and dog teams at borders. Congress is raising fines for meat smuggling and is considering overhauls of other USDA labs, including one in Ames, Iowa, and another in Athens, Ga.

Recent federal and state computer simulations show that a single case in the U.S. could shut down the $57-billion animal-export market for animal-related goods and wipe out tens of thousands of animals -- and farm jobs. To contain an outbreak, hundreds of thousands of animals would have to be slaughtered, including wildlife and birds.

"We're here like an insurance policy," Dr. McKenna says. "We're still waiting for our time. I'm hoping it won't come."

[Photograph of Cow With Vets at Plum Island]

Congress approved the lab in the early 1950s, in the wake of foot-and-mouth outbreaks in Canada and Mexico. Plum Island, purchased by the government in the 1890s, was used as a fort during both World Wars. The Army was in the midst of building a biological-warfare lab here when it halted the project and turned the island over to the Agriculture Department.

Now, about 160 people are stationed here, including 55 researchers for the USDA's Animal Research Service. Twenty more people represent the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which licenses detection methods and diagnoses disease. Two-thirds of the budget goes to a small army of subcontractors who maintain the complex, do laundry, pilot boats and patrol.

The director, David Huxsoll, is a former commander of the Army's germ-weapons program at Fort Detrick, Md., where he oversaw anthrax research in the 1980s.

Plum Island is protected, on a government scale of one to four, by a level-three security. Still, there have been mishaps. In 1991, a hurricane knocked out the power for several hours, threatening to unleash deadly bacteria. In the late 1970s, foot-and-mouth germs escaped -- infecting steers in one of the lab's barns.

Dr. McKenna, 50 years old, used to drive sled dogs and herd reindeer in Alaska before he decided to become a veterinarian. He has been working on Plum Island since 1994, going by boat to a job that bars him from exposure to any animals within five days of being on the island -- and therefore limits his opportunities to take his two children to the zoo -- and makes him an object of suspicion. "I meet people sometimes who don't want to shake my hand," he says. "They say, we've heard all about what goes on there." Some confuse the lab with the other Plum Island, a popular Massachusetts vacation destination.

Calculated Secrecy

For decades, the island guarded itself with a calculated secrecy that stoked rumors of aliens living in the former Army bunkers that dot the beach, 12-foot chickens and three-headed pigs. "Historically, Plum Island cultivated a mystique of danger to help in security," Dr. McKenna says. "Now, we're paying the price."

Consider the whimsical Web site that touts "Plumb Island" timeshares: "The island's background radiation makes it look like Monday Night Football. Throw a handful of sand into your drink for an instant lava lamp!"

In "The Silence of the Lambs," FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) promises Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) an annual trip to Plum Island in exchange for information on a serial killer. The cannibal seethes: "Anthrax Island?"

The island is still battling that image. "We have no interest in anthrax," Dr. McKenna says, because it is endemic to the U.S. To help with the "public-relations problem," Plum Island began tours. Still, they failed to convince author Nelson DeMille. "How could anthrax not be studied there?" he asks. "Every animal has it." So in his 1997 best-selling crime novel, "Plum Island," he depicts the place as an anthrax-abundant incubator for germ warfare.

Plum Island's mainstay has been in the spotlight since the British outbreak, in which its help was enlisted. Back home, Plum Island scientists got reports of 10 suspected cases a day -- twice the usual. Among them: swine spotted in a North Carolina slaughterhouse with lesions in their mouth and on their hoofs. Their tissue and blood were quickly flown to New York. From John F. Kennedy International Airport, an unmarked car raced the cooler across Long Island, 92 miles east to Greenport. At 1 a.m. -- 15 hours after discovery -- the package was on a boat to Plum Island. Foot-and-mouth was ruled out later that day.

State veterinarians say the scares proved that Plum Island would be quickly overwhelmed during an actual outbreak of foot-and-mouth. Plum Island policymakers want to maintain exclusive diagnostic control, arguing that even a false negative would shut down international trade. So they are loath to license a device their researchers recently perfected to detect foot-and-mouth DNA fingerprints in 30 minutes.

After the Pentagon was attacked, Plum Island scientists evacuated and promptly hired armed guards. But Dr. McKenna says that if germs were unleashed, they would be killed by the salt water and temperature change.

Still, scientists are taking no chances. When they got a letter postmarked Baghdad at the height of the anthrax scare, they double-bagged it and handed it off to Suffolk County, N.Y., police. "It turned out to be a doctor seeking a reprint of a study we produced," Dr. McKenna says. "But how could we be sure?"