U.S. seeks role for N.Y. lab in countering terrorism

Plum Island center may be upgraded for research on pathogens

November 07, 1999|By Judith Miller | Judith Miller,New York Times News Service

PLUM ISLAND, N.Y. -- To counter what the Clinton administration views as the growing threat of biological terrorism to America's food supply, the Agriculture Department is seeking money to turn the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, one-mile off Long Island, into a top security laboratory where some of the most dangerous diseases known to man or beast can be studied.

The Agriculture Department already operates here at Plum Island, just across Gardiners Bay from the wealthy Hamptons, in a laboratory where such dreaded foreign animal diseases as foot-and-mouth and African swine fever are examined. But the department is seeking $75 million this year and $140 million over the next two years to upgrade the center to handle even more dangerous animal diseases that can affect humans.

While there are four civilian military laboratories in America equipped to study such diseases - known as Biosafety Level Four facilities - work is focused on germs that primarily affect humans, not domestic animals or plants.

Officials say the proposed expansion and upgrading of Plum Island is part of a new effort by the Clinton administration to deter terrorists who might spread germs to destroy American crops or livestock for political purposes or financial gain, a threat they now see as equal to that of terrorist attacks aimed at people.

"Given the contribution of crop and animal exports to the nation's prosperity, we must do far more to protect our plant and animal resources," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, and Indiana Republican and co-author of legislation in 1991 and 1996 that provided money to bolster defenses against unconventional terrorism and to stop the proliferation of such weapons.

"This is not about food per se; Americans would not go hungry if we were attacked," said Floyd P. Horn, the administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, who helped persuade the administration to include his agency in January in its counterterrorism plans and programs. "But such an attack, or even a credible threat, would severely disrupt America's economic and social infrastructure for weeks, if not months or years."

Once operated by Army

Plum Island, which was once operated by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, was designated as an animal-disease research center and transferred to the Agriculture Department in the early 1950s. It is what scientists call an agricultural Biosafety Level Three center, which means that its containment areas, which hold germs dangerous to animals, have filtered air, sealed doors and negative air pressure that prevents germs from leaking out of the labs. Liquid waste is decontaminated.

All who enter the labs wear white lab coats and slippers. After leaving the containment areas, they are required to shower, shampoo their hair, scrub their nails and rinse their mouths, since lethal germs can live in human throats and infect animals up to two days later. To stop viruses or microbes from escaping to the mainland, no clothing or articles, even eyeglasses, are permitted to leave the labs without being soaked in disinfectant, said Dr. Alfonso Torres, the deputy administrator of the Agriculture Department's Veterinary Services Division and former director of the center, who conducted this reporter on a tour.

The building's perimeter is also tightly guarded. While Torres declined to discuss specific security measures, the shores of this pork-chop-shaped, 840-acre island are said by federal officials to be monitored by electronic sensors and patrolled by boats and helicopters. Once a year, deer and other animals that have swum across to the island are killed in what island officials call a controlled hunt.

Despite an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on the island in 1978, which led Plum scientists to abandon their holding areas for large animals, "there has never been a leak of a dangerous pathogens to the mainland from Plum Island," Torres said.

Moving to the next level of biosafety would require that scientists working with dangerous pathogens wear the protective decontaminated suits and breathe only filtered air pumped into their hoods. Such precautions would allow scientists to work with even more dangerous animal pathogens that can affect humans, like the Hendra virus, which afflicts horses, and the Nipah pig virus, named for the Malaysian village in which it was first isolated this year. The virus has killed more than 100 people.

Shrouded in mystery

"We intend to work closely with local officials and community groups to allay any concerns about safety," said Horn, who acknowledges that Plum Island has long been shrouded in mystery and plagued by what he and Torres call unfounded rumors and fears.

The 840-acre island was opened to news organizations only in 1992 in response to concerns about safety at the center. In 1995, the Department of Agriculture was fined $111,000 for illegally storing hazardous chemicals here. Since then, the agency has changed the contractor who operates the island, and there have been no violations.

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