In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease rapidly spread through the United Kingdom. The highly infectious disease causes cattle, pigs, goats and sheep to get high fevers and painful blisters in their mouths and on their feet. It’s often fatal.
UK officials had to take drastic measures. Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration? Canceled. Rugby matches? Canceled. Transportation of livestock? Cut off. More than 6 million animals had to be slaughtered, too.
All told, the outbreak lasted more than six months and cost the UK economy between $10 billion and $15 billion.
Researchers in the United States point to that outbreak as a reminder of how devastating an animal disease can be. It’s also partly why some experts argued for, and continue to support, NBAF. When it’s open, it will dramatically increase the number of state-of-the-art labs available to researchers and enhance their ability to develop detection tools and vaccines for deadly diseases such as foot-and-mouth, African swine fever and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a federal research lab on an island off the coast of New York state, is the only place in the United States where scientists are allowed to research live foot-and-mouth disease viruses. Their main mission: prevent it from coming to the U.S. by controlling and checking trade, and if that happens, quickly stop it from spreading.
(Foot-and-mouth disease) still remains one of the biggest threats to animal agriculture in the United States. And it’s not the only one.
“With current trade and illegal movement of animals, or even people, around the world, the probabilities of foot-and mouth disease entering a free country have increased,” said Luis Rodriguez, Plum Island’s director of foreign animal disease research. “And will probably continue to increase over time.”
But it’s an aging facility, open since 1954, and will be replaced by NBAF, with pretty much everyone from New York relocating to Manhattan. NBAF is the new Plum Island, and then some.
It’s a decision that didn’t make much sense to Nancy Connell, the senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who’s supervised high-level security labs for 25 years at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
She has been a part of the review process overseeing certification of biocontainment labs around the U.S., and was part of the expert committee that evaluated NBAF ahead of construction.
“I remember being disappointed that they couldn't figure out a way to rebuild Plum (Island) and keep this kind of work ... off the mainland,” she said. “Why, if so much money was going to be spent on a new laboratory, why that money couldn't be spent on upgrading Plum?”
What really worried her was NBAF’s actual location, right in the middle of the mainland, in a state where, as one Kansas rancher described it, cattle outnumber people 2 to 1.
It's a valid concern, especially because Plum Island hasn't had a perfect record of containing foot-and-mouth disease. Since 1978, there have been three incidents of it spreading to animals and places it wasn't supposed to. Two of those were in 2004, and in both instances, animals inside of the secure biocontainment area were found to be infected with the disease. It illustrates how easily it can spread because of human error.
The U.S. mainland already has more than 1,000 biosafety level-3 research labs (BSL-3) used to study dangerous diseases, including 14 at K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute. BSL-3 labs are some of the most secure around, specifically designed to contain the potentially deadly diseases and viruses.
To get inside, a researcher must start in a small locker room, where street clothes are removed and replaced with scrubs. A researcher then must put on a disposable gown and two sets of gloves before moving to the next room. Here, if required, the researcher gets into either a full-body hazardous-materials suit or a mask with a respirator that blows air down and over the face.
Only then can a researcher enter the lab, where air flows in from the outside to ensure any airborne diseases inside the lab stay there.
“We all live here, too, and we care probably more than anybody else about this stuff getting out,” Biosecurity Research Institute officer Julie Johnson said. “Because we’re more likely to be directly exposed if something bad happens.”
The BRI was completed in 2008 and its scientists work on diseases such as African swine fever and Rift Valley fever — two infectious diseases on NBAF’s priority list. But the BRI and other facilities can’t develop and test potential vaccines on dozens of animals at a time.
“We can do a lot of the research but not at that sort of scale,” BRI Director Stephen Higgs said. “Especially with foot-and-mouth disease, which, again, is very complicated. There are multiple different types, and you need that capacity.”
Of the thousands of BSL-3 labs in the U.S., most are only capable of studying small animals, such as mice and bats. That’s true of the BRI, too, where only five labs are capable of handling large animals like cattle or swine. But NBAF’s massive scale will provide space for 46 labs big enough for that type of livestock.
NBAF also will have the holy grail of livestock research labs: BSL-4. Only Canada, Australia and Germany have them. BSL-4 labs are where scientists can study highly contagious, airborne, zoonotic diseases — diseases that can pass between humans and animals — that have no known vaccination or treatment. In starker terms, they’re killers.
Biosafety specialist Margie Juergensmeyer demonstrates pipetting at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute. (Nomin Ujiyediin for Harvest Public Media)
Currently, coordinating with the other BSL-4 labs can take months, even years, according to Jurgen Richt, a K-State researcher who specializes in zoonotic diseases.
“So if we have an emergency … we have to ask other countries to help us to work in these environments,” he said. “I don’t think this is feasible.”
Plus, most researchers say emerging diseases that’ll kill humans, like MERS or Nipah (which is transmitted through infected bats or pigs, or through another infected person), have origins in large animals. That’s why it’s critical to have BSL-4 labs in the U.S.
“You just can’t study pigs under the proper setting anywhere in the United States in any laboratory,” said Washington State University professor Terry McElwain, who led the 2012 study by the National Academies of Sciences looking at potential alternatives to NBAF. “It has to be very specific conditions.”
The bottom line: Plum Island and other research facilities across the U.S. are inadequate when faced with the increasing threat of a severe disease outbreak, such as foot-and-mouth disease or African swine fever, which over the last several months in China has led to the culling of almost 1 million pigs.
“(Foot-and-mouth) still remains one of the biggest threats to animal agriculture in the United States,” McElwain said. “And it’s not the only one.”