Inside A Disease Lab You Have to Be Careful Photographing

The biosafety level 3 facility on Plum Island in Long Island Sound has been converted from biowarfare to studying animal diseases, harmless to humans, that could come into the U.S. from abroad. Some of those diseases could devastate U.S. flocks or herds. The secrecy and message-control surrounding the facility is intense. But is the secrecy meant to protect the U.S. public or to protect the financial interests of the agriculture industry?

"Fernando Torres-Vélez waits for samples in the darkness by a helicopter landing pad on Plum Island. Situated 1.5 miles from the eastern tip of Long Island, the island’s 840 acres of wildlife surround a handful of high-security laboratories run by the Department of Homeland Security to combat livestock diseases and bioterror threats.

Torres-Vélez, a veterinary pathologist, takes a ferry here five days a week as head of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab. But tonight is different. A veterinarian at the New York State Fair has reported a cow with symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)—a virus that leaves livestock covered with lesions, too emaciated to produce milk or meat, and so contagious that an outbreak would halt all dairy and beef production in the U.S. When the helicopter lands, Torres-Vélez receives the cow’s saliva sample and rushes to his lab. Within four hours his team has ruled out FMD.

Plum Island is a biosafety level 3 lab, equipped to deal with diseases that don’t infect humans but are contagious and possibly fatal in animals. Vaccines developed here could stop viral outbreaks in the U.S., as well as in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—nations where FMD still poses a threat.

Given the stakes and the intrigue, Plum Island has gained a reputation for being secretive and covert. That may be deserved. A recent visitor found scientists eager to discuss their work yet careful to abide by public relations rules not to say too much. Photography was restricted unless an escort directed the camera. (Verboten: photographing the ferry dock from the Long Island side.) And yet soon Plum Island may be superseded. Within a decade, the lab is expected to move to a brand-new biosafety level 4 facility in Kansas, where scientists can study Nipah virus encephalitis and other livestock diseases that could be fatal to humans. Plans for the facility are stacked on Torres-Vélez’s desk."

Amy Barth reports for Discover magazine September 26, 2012.

Source: Discover, 09/27/2012