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Plum Island has given rise to some interesting lore. Perhaps it’s the laboratory’s long history or its secluded location. Whatever the reason, conspiracy theorists and fiction writers alike have tried to link the site to germ warfare, anthrax, and even a purported “monster” found earlier this summer on a beach in nearby Montauk, NY.
But reality offers a completely different story. It’s a tale of how the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) has protected America’s livestock and agriculture from the threat of foreign animal diseases for more than half a century. The lab—located off the tip of Long Island—serves as the front line of the nation’s defense against diseases that could devastate markets for livestock, meat, and other animal products. At PIADC, the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together on a crucial shared mission.
The center’s primary focus has been helping to prevent foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which last occurred in the United States in the late 1920s. Research and diagnostic efforts conducted at Plum Island are focused on keeping that disease, and other foreign animal diseases like it, from threatening the multibillion-dollar U.S. livestock industry. In fact, PIADC is the only facility in the nation where live FMD virus can be studied, and its scientists are taking critical steps toward a new vaccine.
“Though the center’s mission may not be as colorful as the fictional pursuits we hear about, its real work is critical to the security of the nation’s agriculture, food supply, and economy,” said PIADC Director Dr. Larry Barrett.
FMD is a livestock disease that afflicts cloven-hoofed animals such as cows, sheep, pigs, deer, and goats. Though it is not infectious to humans, it is the most contagious disease known. FMD is also endemic to many parts of the world. In 2001, the United Kingdom had an outbreak of the disease that resulted in an economic loss of approximately $8 billion and the slaughter of more than 6.2 million animals.
FMD is a disease of economic importance because to freely export agricultural products and conduct foreign trade, countries must be considered free of FMD. An FMD outbreak in the United States could have devastating consequences, with a cost estimated at $20 billion to $60 billion.
FMD is caused by a virus, of which there are seven types. Among those seven, there are even more variations, resulting in more than 60 subtypes. For most of its existence, PIADC has been looking to develop more effective and more efficient vaccines for this complicated disease.
Because current vaccines use live virus, they cannot be manufactured in the United States. Another issue with current vaccines is that their potential use is limited because there is no way to differentiate between a vaccinated animal and an infected animal; both animals test positive for the disease, which affects a country’s ability to become FMD-free after an outbreak. (In 2001, the United Kingdom did not vaccinate animals after the outbreak and instead relied on culling infected and potentially exposed animals. Vaccination typically extends the wait period for being able to export agricultural products by several more months.)
PIADC is developing a new vaccine for FMD that is making strides in technology and options for potential use. The new vaccine uses a small number of genes from the virus—not the whole, live virus—so it can be manufactured in the United States. The new vaccine also allows the possibility to differentiate infected from vaccinated animals.
The vaccine opens up opportunities for countermeasure control in the event of an outbreak and, when finalized, would be the first to be licensed for manufacture in the United States. “This new FMD vaccine shows just how important Plum Island is to staying prepared and protecting the nation’s agriculture,” said Barrett.