Government admits accidents at Plum Island biolab

Published 14 April 2008

The biolab on Plum Island, off the tip of Long Island, is the only lab allowed to do research on the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease; DHS officials admit that since 1978 here have been several accidental releases of the virus into cattle in holding pens

The Bush administration acknowledged Friday that several accidents occured in the only U.S. facility allowed to research the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). A 1978 release of the virus into cattle holding pens on Plum Island, New York, triggered new safety procedures. That incident was previously known, but DHS told a House committee there were other accidents inside the government’s laboratory. The accidents are significant because the administration is likely to move foot-and-mouth research from the remote island to one of five sites on the U.S. mainland. The five locations are competing for the $450 new biohazard lab, and all the locations are near livestock herds. This has raised concerns about the risks of a catastrophic outbreak of the disease, which does not sicken humans but can devastate the livestock industry. Skeptical Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded to see internal documents from the administration that they believe highlight the risks and consequences of moving the research. The live virus has been confined to Plum Island for more than a half-century to keep it far from livestock.

The 1978 accidental release “resulted in the FMD virus in some of the cattle in holding pens outside the laboratory facility,” Jay Cohen, a senior Homeland Security official, wrote in response to the committee. “Detailed precautions were taken immediately to prevent the spread of the disease from Plum Island, and new precautionary procedures were introduced.” Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology, said there also have been “in-laboratory incidents” — contamination of foot-and-mouth virus within the facility but not outside it - at Plum Island since 1954. That was the year the Agriculture Department acquired the land and started the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. One government report, produced last year and already provided to lawmakers by DHS, combined commercial satellite images and federal farm data to show the proximity to livestock herds of locations that have been considered for the new lab. “Would an accidental laboratory release at these locations have the potential to affect nearby livestock?” asked the nine-page document. It did not directly answer the question.

A simulated outbreak of the disease in 2002 — part of an earlier U.S. government exercise called Crimson Sky — ended with fictional riots in the streets after the simulation’s National Guardsmen were ordered to kill tens of millions of farm animals, so many that troops ran