Foot-and-mouth plan used flawed study

May 22, 2008 8:56:04 AM PDT
Congressional investigators have concluded that the Bush administration lacks evidence that it would be safe to research highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease on the U.S. mainland. Two Democratic committee leaders said it would be foolish and dangerous for the administration to move ahead with those plans, given the risk of an animal epidemic if the virus escapes.

A Republican lawmaker, whose state is a finalist for a mainland facility, said a move from an outmoded laboratory on Plum Island, N.Y. would be safe under modern virus containment methods.

Nancy Kingsbury, a research expert at Congress' Government Accountability Office, said the administration relied on a flawed study to conclude the research could safely be moved to a planned, state-of-the-art facility near commercial livestock.

Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said plans by the Department of Homeland Security were not only "baffling, but dangerous."

"It will be farmers and ranchers who bear the risk" of the world's most infectious animal-only disease, Dingell said. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the panel's investigative subcommittee, said the move "would be a foolish tempting of fate." Both are Michigan Democrats.

But Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr., R-Miss., pointed out that a strong bipartisan majority supports a provision in a major farm bill that would allow the move to the mainland. Pickering said a new laboratory would be safe on the mainland including in his state - where Flora, Miss. is one of five finalists for the mainland site.

The one certainty in the debate that has divided the commercial livestock industry: making the wrong choice could bring on an economic catastrophe.

While the disease does not sicken humans, an outbreak on the U.S. mainland - avoided since 1929 - could lead to slaughter of millions of animals, a halt in U.S. livestock movements, a ban on exports and severe losses in the production of meat and milk.

To avoid an epidemic, foot-and-mouth research has been confined since 1955 to the 840-acre Plum Island, N.Y., off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The facility there is outmoded and will be replaced by a National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility that also will study diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans.

The finalist site, besides Flora, Miss., are: Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio. One Homeland Security study found the numbers of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the finalists ranged from 542,507 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia.

Plum Island also is a finalist, although Homeland Security officials are spending considerable time and money holding forums at the mainland locations to convince residents the new lab would be safe.

"We found that DHS has not conducted or commissioned any study to determine whether FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) work can be done safely on the U.S. mainland," Kingsbury, the GAO's managing director for applied research and methods.

Jay Cohen, an undersecretary of Homeland Security, said in his prepared testimony: "While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks."

Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said risk assessments are being conducted at each proposed site to evaluate impacts of hypothetical foot-and-mouth disease releases. The public will be asked to comment on the findings.

The administration based its decision of safe mainland research on a 2002 Agriculture Department study on whether it was technically feasible to do the work onshore.

Kingsbury said there's a major distinction between what is technically feasible and "what is possible, given the potential for human error."

"We found that the study was selective in what it considered," she said. "It did not assess the history of releases of FMD virus or other dangerous pathogens, either in the United States or elsewhere."

It also did not address the dangers of working with infected large animals; the virus can be carried in a person's lungs, nostrils or other body parts, making him or her a possible vehicle for a virus escape. The study also did not consider the history of accidents in laboratories, the GAO said.

The AP reported in April that a 1978 release of the virus into cattle holding pens on Plum Island triggered new safety procedures. While that incident was previously known, Homeland Security officials acknowledged there were other accidents at Plum Island.

The GAO report listed six other accidents between 1971 and 2004.

"These incidents involved human error, lack of proper maintenance, equipment failure and deviation from standard operating procedures," the GAO said. "Many were not a function of the age of the facility or the lack of technology and could happen in any facility today."

The investigators found that the United States only avoided international restrictions after the 1978 outbreak because it was confined to the island.