Since Sept. 11, U.S. government officials have been stepping up security at various federal facilities across the nation, such as nuclear power plants. The tri-state area is of particular concern, with the presence of nuclear plants like Indian Point, which is north of New York City, and Millstone, here in Connecticut.
A few miles off the coast of southeastern Connecticut however, lies Plum Island, which houses the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Center. The facility has maintained a low profile in recent years, as well as after the terrorist attacks; and that is just the way they like it.
A government ferryboat in Orient Point, Long Island, takes visitors on a 15-minute trip to reach the island. Upon reaching the island, there are signs that read: “U.S. Government Property, Do Not Enter Harbor.” Farther down the road, a modern building appears, supplemented by a few other older white facilities. Aside from the modern building, which was constructed in the 1990’s, the other buildings date back to when the disease center was established, in the early 1950’s. Before the center took flight, the island was home to a military base, with the buildings still standing today. One is used as a fire station for the disease center, while the others remain abandoned.
No three-eyed sheep were seen roaming the hillside, only a bunch of unadorned laboratory buildings. Contrary to popular belief, the island does not house any life-threatening diseases that effect humans, nor are there secret hush-hush operations going on here. This was according to officials who run the island.
Plum Island is classified as a Level 3 disease center, with Level 4 being the highest and most sensitive. Should the facility be upgraded to Level 4, which is a possibility, research on diseases that effect humans would be allowed, increasing the security concern.
Specially selected animals are brought to Plum Island by ferry, and quickly placed into secure facilities. The animals are then infected with disease, and tested by the scientists. Once research is complete, the animals are then destroyed by incineration.
Security is vital at this facility, as ensuring diseases don’t leave the island is a must. With terrorist threats a reality now, it is increasingly more important to ensure those agents do not get in the wrong hands. For security reasons, officials at Plum Island would not reveal the increased security measures put in place since Sept. 11. However, there have always been cautionary measures in place.
First, all researchers who come and go from the laboratories containing the animals must shower and go through other decontamination procedures. Any air leaving the lab is also filtered.
The leading disease currently being studied at Plum Island is Foot and Mouth disease (FMD). FMD was in the news recently, as outbreaks spread in Europe a few months ago.
Dr. Peter Mason is the lead researcher on Plum Island, and he and his fellow researchers are working to study this illness and how its spreads. “Our goal is to develop knowledge and vaccines to help us combat [a possible outbreak] of FMD [in the United States],” said Mason in an interview.
Are we prepared here in America for an outbreak? “I think the U.S is more prepared now,” said Mason, adding, “I think we are as secure as we can be.” FMD is present in many countries around the globe, according to Dr. Mason. He is quick to add that the disease is “not a human pathogen,” meaning it harms only animals. Mason did say that if an outbreak did occur, one of the biggest catastrophes would be too this county’s economy, as trade would be suspended. FMD has been around for over a hundred years, and is called Foot and Mouth, because the disease is often concentrated on those parts of the animal. “Pressure points,” according to Mason. In Europe, the carcasses of animals believed to have FMD were burned. Does this omit the disease into the air? “There is little evidence is produces spread,” said Mason. The speed at which the disease spreads is what amazes scientists the most. Just 24 hours after an animal comes in contact with the agent, it becomes sick and produces more of the virus. “It is very effective at getting into the host and spreading,” said Mason.
Deer that swim ashore are shot because they are potential carriers for FMD. No diseases being studied affect avian species, meaning birds are a threat. Officials on the island pledge that the facility is safe against attack. With diseases that effect mostly livestock, many other facilities, such as those that study diseases targeted at humans, would more likely draw a terrorist’s attention.