Homeland Security used wrong study for Foot and Mouth research plan

Today in a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce it was revealed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to move foot and mouth disease research to the mainland United States is based on faulty assumptions.

Foot and mouth disease is caused by the most infectious virus known to man. Nearly 100% of exposed animals become infected. Currently, the only place where foot and mouth disease (FMD) research can be done in the US is the Plum Island animal disease research facility, located off the tip of Long Island.

DHS had been planning to move that research to the mainland for sometime now, but that seems doubtful. The testimony given today by Nancy Kingsbury, the managing director of Applied Research and Methods at GAO indicates that DHS based its decision to move FMD research on a 2002 USDA study that simply addressed whether it was technically feasible to do so, ignoring the potential for human error.

We found that DHS has neither conducted nor commissioned any study to determine whether FMD work can be done safely on the U.S. mainland. Instead, DHS relied on a study that USDA commissioned and a contractor conducted in May 2002 that examined a different question: whether it is technically feasible to conduct exotic disease research and diagnostics, including FMD and rinderpest, on the U.S. mainland with adequate biosafety and biosecurity to protect U.S. agriculture. This approach fails to recognize the distinction between what is technically feasible and what is possible, given the potential for human error. DHS told us that this study has allowed it to conclude that it is safe to conduct FMD work on the U.S. mainland.

In addition to a number of other methodological problems with the study, we found that it was selective in what it considered in order to reach its findings. In particular, the study

1. did not assess the history of releases of FMD virus or other dangerous pathogens,

2. did not address in detail the issues related to large animal work in BSL-3 Ag facilities, and

3. was inaccurate in comparing other countries’ FMD work experience with that of the United States.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) was particularly critical of DHS in his opening statement, noting the trend to move infectious animal disease research to islands, not off them.

“Equally troubling, it appears that DHS is out of step with the rest of the world. GAO investigators visited major labs across Europe and found that in other developed countries, the trend is to do just the opposite of what DHS has proposed: Germany built its new lab on an island; Denmark built its new lab on an island; and the U.K. Parliament is debating the relocation of its lab to an island.” Dingle continued, “Why then would DHS propose to move live virus of foot-and-mouth from Plum Island to the American heartland? GAO was unable to find a scientific reason for the move. They found apparent agreement that the current Plum Island lab needs substantial renovation, but they found no justification for moving the lab to the mainland.”

You can read the highlights of the GAO testimony here and read more press coverage of the plan here

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