U.S. plans to modernize Plum Island facility

Questions asked about laboratory's final location
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The Department of Homeland Security announced in late August that it would replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the eastern coast of Long Island, N.Y., with a "next generation biological and agricultural defense facility" at a location yet to be determined.

The DHS, which assumed responsibility of the facility from the Department of Agriculture in June 2003, says the center is "an essential component of the national strategy for protecting U.S. agriculture from a bioterrorist attack involving the introduction of foreign animal diseases." Yet the 50-year-old facility will soon become obsolete, the DHS warned.

Accessible by ferryboat or helicopter, the 840-acre island is about one and a half miles off Orient Point, the easternmost hamlet on the North Fork of Long Island. The center has 180 employees, 92 of whom are research scientists with the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Agricultural Research Service.

Besides being the only facility in the United States where research on live foot-and-mouth disease virus is permitted, Plum Island houses an FMD vaccine bank. Plum Island scientists also play a vital role in rapidly diagnosing other foreign animal diseases, such as classical swine fever.

The DHS plans for Plum Island describe a new National Bio and Agro-defense Facility capable of supporting increasing levels of research and development to meet concerns about accidental or intentional introduction of foreign animal diseases. The new facility would also allow for zoonotic disease research.

The initiative is in keeping with Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9, which directs the Agriculture and Homeland Security secretaries to develop a plan to provide "safe, secure, and state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories that research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases."

President Bush has already requested $23 million in his 2006 budget for the design and initiation of the new facility. The DHS has announced that it will conduct a conceptual study to identify key requirements at the facility, along with a cost-benefit analysis.

The study will look at several areas, including whether the new facility should house additional Biosafety Level 3 laboratories and possibly even a BSL-4 laboratory for highly pathogenic foreign animal and zoonotic diseases.

Following the announcement, Dr. W. Ron DeHaven and Edward B. Knipling, PhD, APHIS and ARS administrators, respectively, assured stakeholders in a letter that Plum Island would not be closing now or anytime soon. If the new facility is located off Plum Island, transition of USDA and DHS programs to the new facility will be gradual and orderly, and unlikely to begin for at least another five years, the administrators wrote.

There is no doubt that the Plum Island center is greatly in need of critical renovations and upgrades. For years, the AVMA, U.S. Animal Health Association, American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, and other groups have been calling for improvements (see JAVMA, March 1, 2004).

What isn't clear, however, is whether the new diagnostic and research laboratories will remain on Plum Island or be moved to the U.S. mainland.

The DHS announcement on Aug. 24 took many by surprise. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose district includes Plum Island, reportedly complained to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that they had not been notified of the decision. In addition, Clinton and Bishop said the laboratory should remain on Plum Island.

Security is another primary concern at the facility. In September 2003, the General Accounting Office released a report on the need to improve security at Plum Island. The report found that, while security has improved at the facility, more measures are necessary to prevent breaches.

As the DHS moves forward with its plan, it will be working with the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, along with the AVMA and other stakeholders.