Efforts are under way to create a network of veterinary diagnostic laboratories across the United States capable of early detection of a biologic attack or foreign animal disease outbreak.
Proponents of the proposal say state veterinary diagnostic laboratories are an underutilized resource that can strengthen the nation's biosecurity by providing rapid recognition of diseases threatening public and animal health.
The departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Energy, and Agriculture have expressed interest in enhancing the capabilities of state veterinary diagnostic laboratories to combat disease outbreaks. Acknowledgment of the link between veterinary and human medicine, especially when it comes to identifying zoonotic diseases, is becoming increasingly widespread.
When anthrax-laced letters were mailed to targeted government officials and news media in September and October, the public health system was stretched alarmingly thin by the preponderance of samples they received—any suspicious—looking white powder. Some veterinary diagnostic laboratories were called on to assist with environmental samples from the Hart Senate Office Building and some post offices.
In brief, the network proposal calls for a protocol for testing samples of biologic agents among state veterinary diagnostic laboratories, along with improvements to equipment, staff, facilities, and communications. Congress has funded similar innovations at state public health laboratories through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Given their dissemination throughout the country and their routine testing of samples from a wide range of animal populations—from pets to wildlife—for diseases that public health laboratories do not normally look for, state veterinary diagnostic laboratories already contribute to surveillance for new and emerging animal diseases.
Yet there is now renewed interest in harnessing these capabilities to monitor for bioterrorist attacks.
"The bottom line is the veterinary diagnostic labs in the U.S. are already used to looking for things like anthrax and tularemia and plague, and so on and so forth," said Dr. Bruce Akey, chief of laboratory services for the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
"We routinely look for them," he continued. "We just wanted to make sure that, by setting up this network, that everybody that's looking for [biologic agents is] using the same protocols, that the results are comparable, and that there's a communications network in place so that information is shared quickly, efficiently, and accurately."
"The bottom line is the veterinary diagnostic labs in the U.S. are already used to looking for things like anthrax and tularemia and plague, and so on and so forth,"
— Dr. Bruce Akey
The American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, of which Dr. Akey is a former president, is spearheading the initiative. The association is seeking government funding to underwrite the costs of the proposed improvements—probably to the tune of several million dollars. One potential source is the additional appropriations the USDA received from Congress for homeland security, according to Dr. Akey. Although most of the $328 million is earmarked for other projects, $20 to $25 million is still available, which is more than enough to fund the effort, he said.
The network concept originated late in the 1990s with biological warfare expert Dr. David Huxsoll. From 1983–1990, Dr. Huxsoll was commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. In 1991, he led a United Nations biological warfare inspection team in Iraq following the Gulf War.
After the war, there was speculation about Iraq's biological warfare capabilities. Several federal agencies were becoming increasingly concerned about bioterrorism and the ability of the U.S. public health system to identify biologic agents likely to be used in an attack. There was talk of building new facilities devoted to this end, but Dr. Huxsoll, then with the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, thought these measures unnecessary, since the resources already existed—state veterinary diagnostic laboratories.
Many biologic agents that could be used by a terrorist cause zoonotic diseases, explained Dr. Huxsoll, who now directs the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Staff at a veterinary diagnostic laboratory might be surprised if they identified a case of anthrax, he said, but not shocked because the bacteria is endemic in some parts of the United States and Canada, and hundreds of animal cases are reported every year.
Around 1997, the Department of Justice got involved. The department wanted to determine the feasibility a network of veterinary diagnostic laboratories that could provide quick, accurate identification of biological agents used in acts of terrorism. The department provided funding for Dr. Huxsoll to form a consortium of veterinary facilities for such an end.
The initial plan was to create a pool AAVLD-accredited laboratories and laboratories associated with veterinary medical colleges, Dr. Huxsoll said, but others were eventually allowed to participate. Approximately 20 laboratories agreed to participate in the project. Dr. Huxsoll noted that, at the time, the concept was being discussed among a broad range of government and professional groups, including the USDA, CDC, AAVLD, U.S. Animal Health Association, National Institutes of Health, and National Disaster Medical System.
Dr. Gary Osweiler, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University, acquired funding from the Department of Energy to create a kind of electronic Rolodex that network participants could use to identify experts in various disease agents and the capabilities of laboratories.
The project was proceeding as of June 2000, but when Justice Department funding dried up soon afterwards, it fell into limbo. Interest was renewed, however, in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks, said Dr. John Andrews, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois.
When the AAVLD met this past November, the association determined to make the network a reality, Dr. Andrews, a former AAVLD officer and executive board member, said.
According to Dr. Akey, laboratories participating in the proposed network would comply with criteria regarding their capabilities for testing bioterrorism agents and foreign animal disease agents. Protocols and proficiency test panels would ensure that the laboratories were doing the same kinds of tests the same way for particular agents.
Each laboratory must have polymerase chain reaction-based equipment, which can provide a diagnosis within an hour, as opposed to the routine culture tests that can take as long as two days. Between 15 and 20 veterinary diagnostic laboratories already have PCR technology, Dr. Akey said. A molecular biologist would be needed at each laboratory, which would be connected to other facilities through a secure Internet site.
Additional safeguards are required by the protocols. Each facility needs a BSL (biosafety level) III suite where more virulent agents can be safely handled. Most veterinary diagnostic laboratories have BSL II suites, although about 35 percent to 40 percent of the laboratories do have a BSL III suite, Dr. Akey explained. BSL IV is the most secure environment, reserved for such viruses as Ebola. BSL III allows for the handling of anthrax in powder form and the live West Nile virus.
The laboratories would be tiered on the basis of their expertise and capabilities, similar to how public health diagnostic laboratories are arranged. According to Dr. Andrews, a C-level facility can detect an agent; a B-level facility can detect an agent and characterize and separate it; and an A-level facility can genetically trace and identify the organism.
Official confirmation of a foreign animal disease within the United States can be made only by Plum Island, and, in some cases, the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa. But this can take up to 24 hours.
Under the proposed network, once a state diagnostic laboratory finds a presumptive positive of, say, hog cholera, government authorities would immediately start quarantining herds and restricting animal movement—emergency responses that normally do not begin until a determination is made by one of the federal veterinary laboratories.
If the outbreak threatened public health, as in the case of anthrax, state public health officers would be alerted, as would the FBI to a possible act of terrorism.
"Every hour that you delay is potential for more animal movement or people movement, and it just increases your risks tremendously," Dr. Akey said. "If we're able to shut down movement of livestock through markets 12 to 24 hours faster than [normal], that can be the difference between [an outbreak] being contained in one state and it spreading to a dozen states."
Another benefit of the network is the state laboratories could assist with sample testing so the federal laboratories would not be overwhelmed.
At press time, the AAVLD was meeting with several groups regarding support for the program, including the National Veterinary Services Laboratories, National Animal Health Emergency Management System, and the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service.
As a result of the anthrax attacks last fall, five people died and more than a dozen others were infected, not to mention the disruption to the U.S. infrastructure and the staggering costs. Those who understand the potential of veterinary diagnostic laboratories know them to be an important part of biosecurity.
"These laboratories should be recognized for what they can offer and how they can help the national effort," Dr. Huxsoll said. "A biological attack could be staggering. That's why it becomes very important to muster all the capability we have in this country."