An AP Member Feature Exchange

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) _ Just off the southeast shore of Plum
Island last week, a dozen or so harbor seals perched in poses
mimicking phases of the moon on sea-weathered rocks, while others
poked heads out of the dark waters, all turning toward the low,
sandy cliff along the beach to a small group gathered on the flat
meadow above.

Between the seals watching the people and the people watching
the seals stood a row of large signs with some unequivocal
messages: “U.S. Property. No Trespassing,” and “Landing

Even the seals, which congregate around the island in the
hundreds during the peak months of winter and early spring, seem to
understand that Plum Island, in its current incarnation, isn’t a
place open for free-frolicking by large mammals of any sort. The
seals, despite their curiosity about humans, oddly never seem to
haul themselves onshore here, even though that’s their habit on
other Long Island Sound beaches.

That observation about the island’s seal population, made by one
of the security guards of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
property in eastern Long Island Sound, came during a tour last week
provided by homeland security officials in advance of public
hearings this week about the island’s future.

Natural areas of the 840-acre island, from the undeveloped
beaches to the meadows alive with wildflowers, songbirds and
migrating monarchs, were a main focus of the tour, as they have
been a main focus of conservation groups lobbying to preserve the
island if the plans for its sale by the federal government are

The tour, however, also acquainted visitors with the island’s
past and current role in protecting the nation. Connected by narrow
dirt roads, a collection of empty red brick and concrete structures
that served as soldiers’ barracks, gun batteries and training
quarters are interspersed between meadows and shrubby fields,
remnants of Fort Terry.

The Army installation, built for the Spanish-American War,
operated through the early 1950s, when the island was turned over
to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for animal disease research.

Now, federal government plans call for the island’s 58-year
history in animal disease research to come to a close over the next
decade. An as-yet unfunded plan exists for a $1.4 billion lab to be
built in Manhattan, Kan., by 2021. Yet even as preliminary
preparations for a bigger, better replacement for the Plum Island
labs continue, its scientists still want the story of the work they
do there daily – and will continue to do for the foreseeable future
– to be better known and understood by the public.

“This lab is not a threat to the nation. This lab is here to
protect the nation,” said Larry Barrett, director of the Plum
Island Animal Disease Center.

Every time Americans go to the grocery store or enjoy a
hamburger, ham sandwich, glass of milk or the myriad food products
that contain beef, dairy and pork ingredients, they can thank the
Plum Island labs, he said. Without the research and diagnostic work
Plum Island scientists have done into cattle and swine diseases and
their antidotes, he contends, U.S. food prices would be much higher
and the nation’s farm economy far weaker.

“Farming and agriculture is a trillion-dollar industry. It’s
our food supply and 16 percent of the economy, and livestock are a
critical component of that,” he said.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a main focus of the Plum
Island lab since it opened, would deal a $50 billion, four-year
blow to the U.S. economy, Barrett said. Even though the disease has
not appeared in this country since 1929, it remains active in other
parts of the world. Like the human influenza virus, foot-and-mouth
is a highly changeable pathogen with multiple strains circulating
at any one time. It is also deadly and highly contagious among
cattle, carried easily on the wind.

“Foot-and-mouth is so complex, it’s kept many people busy for
many years, and we still have a lot to do,” said Luis Rodriguez,
an Old Saybrook resident and research leader for the foreign animal
disease research unit of the USDA. “It’s unpredictable and can
show up anywhere at any time.”

Just two years ago, he noted, Plum Island researchers unraveled
the mechanism the virus uses to infect cattle. It enters through
the respiratory system and then enters the bloodstream, so by the
time the telltale sores are visible, the disease is full-blown.

Additional contributions of Plum Island scientists, Barrett
said, include development of a significant new foot-and-mouth
vaccine announced in June. They also help keep the nation’s state
and federal veterinarians up-to-date with regular training programs
on the island, and share advances with colleagues worldwide in
understanding how animals are sickened with foot-and-mouth and
other diseases like African swine fever and common swine fever,
Barrett said. Without this work, he said, this country surely would
surely have had a foot-and-mouth outbreak far worse than the once
experienced in England in 2001, or the one in Japan in 2010, which
caused $6 billion and $4 billion in losses, respectively.

The labs at Plum Island consist of two areas, one with a higher
security level, housed along with offices and a cafeteria in a
comfortable 1993 building adjacent to warehouses where livestock
used in tests and experiments are kept. The entire center, which
occupies about 25 acres of the island, is enclosed by barbed wire

Overseeing the labs is Director of Science Bruce Harper, an Old
Saybrook resident.

“This is one of the rooms where we do tissue cultures,” said
Harper, showing an area with hooded lab tables and other equipment.

That morning, he explained, scientists had been in the
lower-security, or Level 2, lab, working on a project to shorten
the time it takes for the new foot-and-mouth vaccine developed at
Plum Island to become protective to animals by incorporating
interferon into it.

“We’re trying to get it to one or two days,” he said, adding
that with the existing vaccine, cattle take 12 days to develop
antibodies against the virus.

He led visitors through the lab, past centrifuges, protective
gowns hanging on racks, an autoclave for instrument sterilization
and medical waste collection bins, all idle just after lunchtime
that day. The lab, he explained, had been busy in the morning, but
researchers had come to a point when they needed to enter the
higher-level security lab to complete their work. Now, he said,
they were behind a door in an inner lab-within-a-lab where special
access and decontamination procedures must be followed.

Barrett and his fellow scientists describe an impressive track
record of advances in vaccine and animal disease research made at
Plum Island over the years, published regularly in scientific
journals and reports available to the scientific community and the
public. Yet the island, owing to the security measures necessary to
prevent any accidental or intentional release of live, dangerous
viruses, remains the subject of myths and conspiracy theories about
what’s really going on there, Barrett admits.

The often-repeated speculation that Lyme disease is the result
of Plum Island research gone bad, for example, would be impossible,
he said. No research is done at the island on any diseases that can
be transmitted from animals to humans, including vector-borne
illnesses carried by ticks and mosquitoes. A need for a
higher-security facility that can research diseases that can jump
the human-animal barrier is, in fact, the rationale used for
building a lab to replace Plum Island.

Then there’s the 2008 incident known as the Montauk monster, in
which a corpse of an unidentified animal washed up on a Long Island
beach and caused some wild rumors to begin circulating that the
animal had its origins in the Plum Island labs. Appearing in a
History Channel show on the case, Barrett, a veterinarian, cleared
up the mystery by using his knowledge of canine anatomy. As the
cameras rolled, he recalled, he superimposed a picture of the
skeleton of a boxer on a photo of the partially decayed carcass,
and the two matched perfectly.

“I’ve given testimony in Congress, I’ve been on C-SPAN, and
then I’ve been on `Monster Quest,”’ he joked, using the name of
the History Channel Show.

Barrett said that in the past few years, the center has been
reaching out to the public by inviting more groups to tour the
island, hoping to give people some firsthand knowledge to counter
the speculation.

“We’ve been having about 15 groups a year, about 500 people
total,” he said. “We get them to tour the lab and see the island.

We’ve had Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, high school groups, community
groups, and we’re hoping to build on that further.”

About 360 people work on the island, taking the ferry daily from
Old Saybrook or Orient Point on Long Island, but only about 60 of
those are scientists directly involved in the research. Support and
security staff make up the rest, a reflection of the complexities
of operating a highly technical lab with enclosed barns for
livestock, its own power supply and wastewater treatment plants, on
an island.

“It’s not a huge team of scientists here, so we have to be very
focused on what we do,” said Rodriguez.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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