Thursday, May 22, 2008

Foot-and-mouth plan used flawed study

Foot-and-mouth plan used flawed study

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration has no evidence to support its
contention that it would be safe to move research on highly infectious
foot-and-mouth disease to the U.S. mainland near livestock, congressional
investigators said Thursday.
Two Democratic committee leaders said it would be foolish and dangerous for
the administration to move ahead with those plans, given the risk of an
animal epidemic if the virus escapes.
A Republican lawmaker, whose state is a finalist for a mainland facility,
said a move from an outmoded laboratory on Plum Island, N.Y. would be safe
under modern virus containment methods.
Nancy Kingsbury, a research expert at Congress' Government Accountability
Office, said the administration relied on a flawed study to conclude the
research could safely be moved to a planned, state-of-the-art facility near
commercial livestock.
Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said
plans by the Department of Homeland Security were not only "baffling, but
"It will be farmers and ranchers who bear the risk" of the world's most
infectious animal-only disease, Dingell said. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of
the panel's investigative subcommittee, said the move "would be a foolish
tempting of fate." Both are Michigan Democrats.
But Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr., R-Miss., pointed out that a strong
bipartisan majority supports a provision in a major farm bill that would
allow the move to the mainland. Pickering said a new laboratory would be
safe on the mainland including in his state - where Flora, Miss. is one of
five finalists for the mainland site [and, if it turned out not to be safe,
what the hell, at least Mississippi contractors, Mississippi construction
workers, and Mississippi Senatiors already would have gotten their cuts].
The one certainty in the debate that has divided the commercial livestock
industry: making the wrong choice could bring on an economic catastrophe.
While the disease does not sicken humans, an outbreak on the U.S. mainland -
avoided since 1929 - could lead to slaughter of millions of animals, a halt
in U.S. livestock movements, a ban on exports and severe losses in the
production of meat and milk.
To avoid an epidemic, foot-and-mouth research has been confined since 1955
to the 840-acre Plum Island, N.Y., off the northeastern tip of Long Island.
The facility there is outmoded and will be replaced by a National
Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility that also will study diseases that can be
transferred from animals to humans.
The finalist site, besides Flora, Miss., are: Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.;
Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio. One Homeland Security study found the numbers
of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the finalists ranged
from 542,507 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia.
Plum Island also is a finalist, although Homeland Security officials are
spending considerable time and money holding forums at the mainland
locations to convince residents the new lab would be safe.
"We found that DHS has not conducted or commissioned any study to determine
whether FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) work can be done safely on the U.S.
mainland," Kingsbury, the GAO's managing director for applied research and
Jay Cohen, an undersecretary of Homeland Security, said in his prepared
testimony: "While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies
built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and
containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks."
Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said risk assessments are being conducted
at each proposed site to evaluate impacts of hypothetical foot-and-mouth
disease releases. The public will be asked to comment on the findings.
The administration based its decision of safe mainland research on a 2002
Agriculture Department study on whether it was technically feasible to do
the work onshore.
Kingsbury said there's a major distinction between what is technically
feasible and "what is possible, given the potential for human error."
"We found that the study was selective in what it considered," she said. "It
did not assess the history of releases of FMD virus or other dangerous
pathogens, either in the United States or elsewhere."
It also did not address the dangers of working with infected large animals;
the virus can be carried in a person's lungs, nostrils or other body parts,
making him or her a possible vehicle for a virus escape. The study also did
not consider the history of accidents in laboratories, the GAO said.
The AP reported in April that a 1978 release of the virus into cattle
holding pens on Plum Island triggered new safety procedures. While that
incident was previously known, Homeland Security officials acknowledged
there were other accidents at Plum Island.
The GAO report listed six other accidents between 1971 and 2004.
"These incidents involved human error, lack of proper maintenance, equipment
failure and deviation from standard operating procedures," the GAO said.
"Many were not a function of the age of the facility or the lack of
technology and could happen in any facility today."
The investigators found that the United States only avoided international
restrictions after the 1978 outbreak because it was confined to the island.

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