DHS urged to re-expand research at animal disease facility

Plum Island Animal Disease Center currently focuses on foot-and-mouth disease.

The Government Accountability Office recommended this week that the Homeland Security Department re-expand the recently narrowed research focus at a key animal-disease facility.

Experts consulted by the auditing office for its report (GAO-06-132) said a heavy focus on foot-and-mouth disease in research at Plum Island Animal Disease Center is wise but that neglecting other diseases could create vulnerabilities.

"Most of the nationally recognized animal-disease experts we interviewed agreed that it may be prudent to divert limited funds from diseases of lesser importance to the U.S. economy, such as African swine fever, to study FMD," the office wrote. "However, all of the experts expressed concerns that focusing research on a single disease makes livestock more vulnerable to diseases that are not being studied to the same extent or, in some cases, at all."

The Agricultural Research Service, an Agriculture Department agency that conducts research at the facility, deems foot-and-mouth the foreign animal disease most likely to be introduced into the U.S. livestock population. The service has in recent years made foot-and-mouth disease its top research priority at Plum Island, cutting back work on classical swine fever and ending work on African swine fever.

Consulted experts said that since disease outbreaks are difficult to predict, it would be prudent to study a wider range of diseases, potentially including Nipah virus and Rift Valley fever. Homeland Security and Agriculture officials told the auditors, however, that work on such diseases - which can affect humans as well as animals - would require more stringent biosecurity measures at Plum Island.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle said that the department "worked closely with GAO, and we're not averse to their recommendations." He did not rule out a future expansion of the site's research activities.

"If we feel that it is necessary to expand it, or to not focus so heavily on" foot-and-mouth disease, Doyle said, "we'll do whatever is necessary."

Doyle noted that the facility has since its inception focused heavily on foot-and-mouth disease. The research site opened in the early 1950s after foot-and-mouth outbreaks in Mexico and Canada.

"It was founded essentially on that 50 years ago," Doyle said.

With its special biocontainment laboratory, Plum Island "is the only domestic facility where scientists are currently authorized to study live, high-consequence foreign-animal disease agents in large animals," according to the report.

Experts consulted for the report said some of the work at Plum Island could be done elsewhere, freeing the facility's resources for studies of the kind that can be conducted only there. "Work that does not involve the use of a live virus, such as certain aspects of vaccine development, does not require the strict biosafety features of Plum Island," the auditors wrote.

Members of Congress had asked the auditors to review cooperation between the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments on Plum Island, which lies off the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y. Homeland Security took over the facility from Agriculture in 2003, but two Agriculture agencies - the Agricultural Research Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - continue to conduct research at Plum Island.

The auditing office said Agriculture-Homeland Security cooperation at the site had been "largely successful" since the takeover, with Homeland Security augmenting Agricultural Research Service studies by, for example, "advancing efficacy testing and development of vaccines to enhance the nation's ability to respond to a bioterrorism attack."

The report indicates that "over 40" foreign diseases threaten U.S. livestock. Plum Island's mission, in the words of the report, is to "protect U.S. animal industries and exports from deliberate or accidental introductions of foreign animal diseases." The facility's researchers work on disease detection, vaccination, treatment and training of U.S. veterinary personnel.

Homeland Security plans by 2012 to replace the facility with a new one, which may not be on Plum Island.