Advocacy in action

Harry Snelson Department of Homeland Security plans Plum Island’s replacement

On June 1, 2003, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assumed control of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since that time, DHS has served as the “landlord” of the island and its facilities and has been in charge of daily operations and facility maintenance. The USDA, specifically the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), has continued to carry out its mission of protecting animal agriculture from the threat of foreign animal diseases by directing research projects aimed at improving diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines as well as training animal health specialists to recognize diseases of concern.

The PIADC is located on 840 acres on Plum Island, 1.5 miles off the coast of Long Island, New York. The island has a long history of protecting the United States, serving as a first line of coastal defense from the colonial period until its transfer to USDA after World War II. Ownership of the island was initially transferred to USDA from the US Army Chemical Corps in the mid-1950’s as a result of congressional action establishing a new laboratory to address foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) following outbreaks in Mexico and Canada. Legislation requires that research on FMD virus be conducted off the US mainland except by special decree from the Secretary of Agriculture.

The Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL) is housed at the PIADC and is responsible for diagnosis of foreign animal diseases, reagent production and vaccine testing, and training. Due to space and scheduling limitations, however, the laboratory is able to conduct only three to four 2-week training sessions per year. Each session can accommodate approximately 30 students. Most of those training slots are taken up by state or federal animal health officials or military personnel. Rarely are spots made available to practitioners. I and four other AASV members were given the rare opportunity to attend a special swine-oriented training session in 2000. Since then, AASV has been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to send a few additional members through the course. I think all who have had the opportunity to participate in this intense training session would agree that the experience is unequaled. There is nothing like actually being able to observe firsthand the disease process and explore the clinical signs and lesions (or lack thereof) produced by these devastating diseases that fewer and fewer veterinarians in this country have seen.

As everyone who is familiar with the PIADC knows, however, the facility has a number of detractors. Being on an island, which perhaps adds at least the appearance of increased security, makes it very costly to maintain and increases the difficulty of attracting and retaining employees and researchers. In addition, the facilities are in need of significant maintenance, upgrading, and renovation. For these reasons, DHS has begun the process of evaluating options for the center’s future, including moving the facility to a new location.

In March 2006, DHS began evaluating 29 applications to house a facility, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), to replace much, if not all, of the current activities conducted at the PIADC. At the time of this writing, DHS has narrowed the list to 18 sites in 12 states. Plum Island is reportedly no longer in the running. The plan is to develop a short list of three to five sites by the end of the year and begin environmental impact studies with the goal of announcing the final site selection by 2008. This new $451 million, 520,000-square-foot facility will address biological and agricultural national security risks by co-locating scientists from several federal agencies in a state-of-the-art biosafety containment facility. The DHS plans to equip the NBAF with numerous laboratories that will conduct research in high-consequence biological threats involving foreign animal, zoonotic, and human diseases. As a key part of this, DHS plans to house laboratories that will provide high-security spaces for agricultural and animal studies and training. In addition, DHS plans for the NBAF to develop vaccine countermeasures for foreign animal diseases and provide advanced test-and-evaluation capability for threat detection, vulnerability, and countermeasure assessment for animal and zoonotic diseases.

According to information on the DHS website, the NBAF project will integrate those aspects of public and animal health research that have been determined to be central to national security. The related and synergistic homeland defense research, development, test, and evaluation responsibilities will be met by providing essential animal model test-and-evaluation capacity to support licensure of vaccine countermeasures, providing a livestock-capable laboratory of unique biosafety level (BSL3/Ag and BSL4) for developing countermeasures for foreign animal diseases, and providing advanced test-and-evaluation capability for threat detection, vulnerability, and countermeasure assessment for animal and zoonotic diseases.

So far, you would have to agree that animal agriculture should be “happy as a pig in slop.” But, as I think we’re all acutely aware, pigs in slop aren’t all that they appear. In my mind, and in the minds of a number of other animal agriculture stakeholders, there may be some reasons for concern with this process. Undoubtedly, DHS has brought access to funding that USDA had been unable to achieve to address the needs of FADDL and the PIADC. However, DHS has a much broader mission than does USDA (ie, prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks and natural disasters) than does USDA. I am concerned that the emphasis on developing tools to aid animal agriculture may get lost in a multi-agency facility with partners like DHS, Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Defense (DOD).

To date, DHS has not sought nor accepted formal comment or input on the development of the NBAF from animal agriculture stakeholders directly. All decisions have been made by an inter-agency committee formed by DHS, which includes officials representing USDA, DHS, HHS, and DOD. A further area of concern is that DHS does not have a permanent official representing veterinary medicine. The current Veterinary Medical Officer is a temporary position under the Office of the Chief Medical Officer within the Science and Technology Directorate. Thus, animal health issues, in addition to competing with all the other science and technology concerns at DHS, are ultimately filtered through the biases of human medicine. We have 145 years of history working with USDA to improve and protect livestock and the animal agriculture industry. The DHS, while certainly well-meaning and well-funded, has little understanding of agriculture.

For these reasons, I think it is important that those of us interested in animal agriculture should watch this process carefully. At the end of the day, we want to come out of the process with a facility that first and foremost meets the needs of animal agriculture while ensuring public health and protecting our way of life. This new facility should build on the impressive achievements accomplished by the hardworking APHIS and ARS employees and researchers at FADDL by providing resources that promote cutting-edge research to develop and validate new diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines for livestock and enhance their delivery to market. It is also critical that the training aspects of FADDL’s mission be expanded and enhanced. Well-trained animal health officials and practitioners are our first line of defense. Their training should not be at the expense of ongoing research efforts. We should all actively embrace and support the effort to enhance the activities conducted by FADDL, but we as stakeholders should also be involved in the process from the start to ensure the interests of animal agriculture remain the focus and don’t get lost in the bureaucracy.

-- Harry Snelson