foot and mouth disease

The next epidemic, brought to you by the US government – Laura H. Kahn

The United States eradicated foot-and-mouth disease from its borders in 1929. The virus, deadly to livestock, persists in more than 100 countries, though, and travels with ease. It is able to hitchhike on shoes, clothes, and tires. Airborne, it can travel almost 40 miles overland and almost 190 over open ocean. When the United Kingdom experienced a foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, more than six million animals had to be slaughtered to contain the virus’ spread. The economic fallout was devastating, and some farmers committed suicide.

The US Agriculture Department established an animal disease research center on Plum Island, New York, in 1954, for the express purpose of studying foot-and-mouth and other deadly animal diseases. Today, in addition to foot-and-mouth, the center studies viruses like African swine fever, which if inadvertently released, could devastate the US livestock industry. It also looks at other zoonotic pathogens—microbes that can jump from animals to people—that could potentially cause human outbreaks. The research has direct implications for US defense against agro-terrorism, which is the malicious disruption of food supply systems or agriculture. It was with biological threats in mind that the US Department of Homeland Security took over the lab in 2002.

There was a reason the federal government placed the 840-acre lab where it did: The isolated island sits off of the far eastern end of New York State’s Long Island, where the prevailing winds blow towards the ocean. If the foot-and-mouth virus—or any other airborne danger—escaped from the lab, the air currents would likely carry it beyond where it could cause harm. An out-of-the-way location makes sense because no lab is risk free. In 2007, for instance, the foot-and-mouth virus escaped from Great Britain’s Pirbright Institute, one of the world’s leading laboratories studying animal disease, and set off an outbreak at a nearby farm.

So it is absolutely mind-boggling that Homeland Security has decided to move the lab, to be known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, to the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas, smack in the middle of cattle country and Tornado Alley. Builders recently broke ground on the brand-new $1.25 billion dollar facility, which is set to be fully operational in 2022. It will include a biosafety level 4 lab, meaning one designed to handle deadly and exotic pathogens for which no vaccines or treatments exist. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the lab’s move to Kansas. Ranchers and farmers in the area are understandably worried, while local officials are eager for the jobs and investments the lab will bring.

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