Homeland Security again pushes upgrade to animal disease research facility

Department seeks to create massive new “National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.”

The United States is again considering upgrading the capabilities of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center for work on some of the deadliest diseases to humans, after retreating several times in recent years in the face of local and congressional opposition.

The Homeland Security Department announced in a press release Monday that it plans to replace the center, which for 50 years has focused on diseases dangerous to livestock, with a new facility with increased capabilities at the same location near Long Island, N.Y.

The department told Congress in February that it would like to build a new, massive center for biological and agricultural defense called the "National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility," which could include the highest laboratory security level, Biosafety Level 4. It has requested $23 million for fiscal 2006 to begin design studies. If approved by Congress, the total project is projected by the department to cost $451 million through fiscal 2010.

The department's annual budget justification document delivered to Congress earlier this year did not say it was looking to replace the Plum Island center with the new facility. Rather, it also requested funding for operation of facilities and security improvements at Plum Island.

The department announced Monday that the new facility would "replace" the "important but aging" more than 50-year-old center. As a Biosafety Level 3 facility, Plum Island researches highly contagious foreign animal diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease.

The release says Plum Island needs to be replaced because it "is becoming increasingly more costly to maintain," lacks sufficient laboratory and test space to "support the increased levels of research and development needed to meet the growing concerns about accidental or intentional introduction of foreign animal diseases," and is "completely inadequate to address zoonotic diseases."

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be transmitted between animals and humans, such as anthrax, West Nile virus and spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "mad cow disease."

"There is no BSL-4 livestock-capable laboratory in the U.S. to work on high consequence zoonotic diseases in host livestock species," the congressional justification document says.

A presidential directive issued last year, HSPD-9, called for a plan to develop "safe, secure and state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories that research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases," the Homeland Security press release notes.

Located about 1.5 miles off the northeastern tip of Long Island, Plum Island diagnoses and studies foreign animal diseases, and it is the only government facility in the United States that studies foot-and-mouth disease.

The executive branch has proposed increasing the biosafety level at Plum Island over the past decade, but has faced local protests and opposition from New York lawmakers. Opponents have argued that operating a Biosafety Level 4 facility at Plum Island could endanger the local population, which includes the occupants of multimillion-dollar homes in the nearby Hamptons, and that the facility could be subject to a terrorist attack.

Plum Island has had well-publicized security lapses in the past, and it has recently been upgrading its security capabilities.

The release Monday says the conceptual design study beginning next year would evaluate giving Plum Island additional Biosafety Level 3 agricultural facilities and "possibly Biosafety Level 4 for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases as called for in HSPD-9."

The study, scheduled for completion by the end of 2006, would alternatively consider maintaining the current scope of work at Plum Island and building additional, higher-security facilities elsewhere, it says.

"The options for a location, or locations, for the biocontainment facilities have not been identified at this time, but will be considered during the conceptual design study," the release says.

The money requested for the design study in fiscal 2006 was included in respective fiscal 2006 Homeland Security Appropriations bills approved by the Senate and House this year, which have not yet gone to conference.

As part of the plan, the department is considering including a threat assessment capability at the proposed facility, which could be cause for concern "from an arms control perspective," says Alan Pearson, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.

The congressional justification document this year says, "There is currently inadequate national capability to perform required biothreat characterization research in a highly secure environment."

"Modern, safe, secure biocontainment laboratories of sufficient capacity to work on high-consequence foreign animal diseases in livestock are a gap in our national strategy," it says.

"Recent natural incursions of SARS, West Nile, and Monkey Pox demonstrate the increasing threat posed by zoonotic agents," the document adds.

Pearson said that doing threat assessment work at a test and evaluation facility could reduce public transparency of test and evaluation activities and noted that a center at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., already is being built for threat assessment work.

"There might be some small amount of threat assessment that can't be done [at Fort Detrick] because it involves large animal studies, but that's not a lot," he said.