Planet Earth

An Accident at Biohazard Lab Would Cost Billions

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandJun 23, 2008 2:38 PM


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Foot-and-mouth disease, a viral disease that affects cows and other cloven-hoofed animals, is not something to play around with. It's so contagious that when an outbreak occurred in Britain in 2001, the government slaughtered 6 million cows, sheep, and pigs to contain its spread. Still, researchers need to study the virus somewhere in order to develop vaccines and treatments. At the moment the only place for that research within the United States is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on a small island a few miles off the tip of Long Island. But the government has declared that facility outdated and hopes to build a new $450-million facility somewhere on the mainland, kicking up a round of "not in my backyard" complaints. The lab's prospective neighbors have reason to be nervous; a new government study says that a breach at the lab could decimate nearby herds and cost the American economy $4 billion. The new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would have the best security money can buy, and the report, issued by the Department of Homeland Security, stresses that the risk of an outbreak stemming from the lab's research is extremely low. However, should the worst-case scenario occur, the consequences would be more devastating and more expensive at the five mainland sites proposed for the new lab: Athens, Georgia; Manhattan, Kansas; Butner, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; and Flora, Mississippi. The report says at outbreak near the cattle lots of Kansas or Texas would be the most destructive, while an outbreak at the current Plum Island site would be the most harmless.

While some findings of the study might bolster the case for building the new lab on Plum Island, it is still considered unlikely because the region's elected officials strongly oppose it. New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said the draft "does not change the assurances that we have been given by the Department of Homeland Security and others that Plum Island is not suitable" for the new lab [Newsday].

Plum Island offers extra protection because pathogens would have to travel some distance over water to get to the nearest farms on Long Island. The new study concludes that risk would be low to nonexistent that an accident or terrorist attack would result in the outbreak of a dangerous pathogen at any of the sites except in case of a fire and explosion. Such a fire and explosion would pose a moderate risk that virus or disease could spread to nearby livestock or wild animals. The threat from fire and explosion would be diminished for the government's isolated laboratory on Plum Island "due to the low likelihood of any disease getting off of the island," the report said [AP].

Construction of the new lab won't begin until 2010, so the lab's potential neighbors have some time to debate the pros and cons of inviting the federal facility into their towns. The United States hasn't had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since the 1920s, and everyone hopes to keep it that way. A government simulation of an outbreak projected the slaughter of tens of millions of farm animals, and ended with riots in the streets.

Image: flickr/chad paul

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