Plum Island redoubles foot-and-mouth research

At isolated N.Y. lab, scientists hunt for cure to elusive disease

September 09, 2001|By Ridgely Ochs | Ridgely Ochs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Accessible only by government-owned ferries either from Long Island, N.Y., or from Old Saybrook, Conn., and covered in beach plum and low scrubby pine, sandy Plum Island looks more like a blissful haven for birds than the site of high-level research.

But, housed in a large brick-and-concrete building that looks like a middle school with large loading docks and myriad stacks jutting up from the roof, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center is ground zero in the United States for the study of foot-and-mouth disease, the animal equivalent of the plague.

Since the outbreak of the virus in the British Isles, Plum Island has been a very busy place as scientists attempt both to prevent and to prepare for an outbreak here.

"A year ago people were saying maybe we have gotten as far as we can go with foot-and-mouth," said Peter Mason, who heads foot-and-mouth disease research at the center, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "But now we're redoubling our efforts, trying to push the envelope."

In fact, researchers say there is a tiny silver lining in the smoky cloud that has hung over British farms as more than 3.8 million livestock have been burned since February to control the outbreak there. Fewer in the United States now question the need for an animal disease lab - shrouded in some secrecy and the source of controversy at times - on the 840-acre island a mile and a half off Long Island.

`A little limelight'

"Most certainly the level of awareness is greater. ... I think in many ways we are unsung heroes and it does good to give a little limelight," said Juan Lubroth, head of the reagents and vaccines section at Plum Island.

Foot-and-mouth disease is not a danger to humans, whether they come in contact with it or they eat infected meat, but the virus can wreak havoc on livestock. Since February, when it was first detected there, the outbreak in Britain has cost more than $36 billion to farmers and has had a heavy impact on other industries like tourism, leaving some people homeless. Keeping the virus out of the United States and away from the $45 billion U.S. livestock industry has become a much higher priority in the past six months, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has instituted a number of controls, including beefing up its security at airports and docks.

But Mason and others concede that keeping foot-and-mouth out of the United States in our increasingly globalized economy is tough and not as effective, ultimately, as understanding and controlling the virus.

And that's where Plum Island and science come in. The U.S. Agriculture Department facility studies animal diseases not present in the United States.

Historically, foot-and-mouth has been what Agriculture Department spokeswoman Sandy Hays called "the biggie ... our reason for being."

The island was once the site of Fort Terry, built in 1897 for coastal and harbor defenses. In 1954, it was handed over to the Agriculture Department after fear that foot-and-mouth disease would spread from Mexico, and that was the last time the disease occurred on this continent.

Only U.S. storage site

By law, none of the highly infectious virus can be kept on the U.S. mainland. Thus, the only place where the virus is stored and studied in the United States is in a bio-level 3 containment laboratory on the island. (A bio-level 4 lab is the highest, most secure lab, requiring researchers to wear space-like suits.)

Moreover, if there were an outbreak of the disease, Plum Island would be the place where it would be diagnosed. And if there were a need to use a vaccine to control an outbreak, Plum Island would be the place where a vaccine would be tailored to the specific strain.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a highly contagious and mutable virus that afflicts mainly cloven-hooved animals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, as well as some wild animals such as deer, camels and giraffes.

According to some studies, about 40 cases of foot-and-mouth in humans have been seen over the centuries. But these cases are considered controversial, and the World Health Organization does not consider the virus a potential danger to humans. People can carry and transmit the virus to animals, however.

The virus can be transmitted through direct contact, from the air or from clothes or objects such as farm equipment.

An infected animal typically develops a fever and blisters and erosions of flesh on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on the teats and between the hooves. Generally, the virus kills only the very young or very old animals, but it leaves those afflicted severely debilitated, unable to produce milk or unfit for meat production. There is no effective treatment.

Identified in 1898

Although it has been identified and studied since 1898, foot-and-mouth remains a frustrating and elusive prey. Like the flu virus or the human immunodeficiency virus, the virus changes constantly, Mason said. There are at least seven known groups of the virus, each with its own strains.

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