From: Charles Abbott, Reuters
Published August 27, 2007 06:12 PM

U.S. Seeks Home For Research On Fearsome Diseases

WASHINGTON - A federal laboratory off Long Island, known as the "Alcatraz for animal disease," may move to the U.S. mainland as part of a new $450 million research center.


Plans for the next-generation National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, slated to go online by 2013, include biosafety labs where scientists, clad in outfits resembling spacesuits and tethered to air supplies, would research diseases that can spread to people from animals.


The Department of Homeland Security has partially completed a round of public hearings, which conclude September 20, on six potential sites for the NBAF, including Plum Island, which already houses an older research center.


Public meetings are scheduled for Tuesday in Manhattan, Kansas, and for Thursday in Flora, Mississippi, on proposals to build the facility in those communities. Sites also have been proposed in San Antonio, Texas; Athens, Georgia, and Butner, North Carolina.


The winning site would be named in fall 2008 under the schedule outlined by the government.


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For more than half a century, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has been the only federal laboratory permitted to conduct research on live foot-and-mouth disease viruses. If another site is selected, Congress will be asked to repeal a law that bars such research on the mainland, a DHS spokesman said.


Homeland Security says the NBAF would conduct research on highly contagious diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease and swine fever, along with two diseases that can spread to humans from animals, Rift Valley Fever and Japanese encephalitis.


"Today's ... labs are extremely safe," said the spokesman, Larry Orluskie.


There are four labs that run at biosafety level 4, which calls for multiple safeguards while handling high-risk disease organisms, in urban areas -- Atlanta, the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and in Galveston and San Antonio, Texas. By comparison, a college chemistry lab could be level 1.


"There has never been a public exposure at a BSL-4 lab in the United States," DHS said in documents prepared for the public meetings, which will garner information on possible environmental impacts at each site.


About 10 percent of the 520,000 square-foot NBAF would be devoted to biosafety level 4. Some 250-350 researchers, assistants and operations specialists would work at the facility, which would supersede work now performed at Plum Island in evaluating disease risk and developing vaccines and other counter-measures.


Woody, 840-acre (340-hectare) Plum Island, two miles off the eastern tip of Long Island, is sometimes called the Alcatraz for animal disease because research on foot and mouth disease, one of the most feared livestock diseases in the world, is exiled on the island, similar to the way criminals were sent to the now-closed Alcatraz island penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.


Plum Island houses a vaccine bank for foot and mouth disease, too, and its scientists play a role in diagnosis of other foreign animal diseases, such as hog cholera. They also work on rinderpest and vesticular stomatitus.


"Our first priority is to keep foot-and-mouth disease off the American mainland," said Jay Truitt of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The last U.S. outbreak was 1929.


Information about the NBAF was available on the Internet at http://www.dhs.gov/nbaf.


© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.


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