A mysterious lab is shutting down. It’s the end of an era for biosecurity.
Bloomberg September 16, 2023
About a mile off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, past a patch of rough sea and a long, sharp reef, there’s a wild, sequestered place known as Plum Island. Some may have heard of it: It’s been rumored to be the origin point of Lyme disease and the Montauk Monster, and made a cameo in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Some call it the Area 51 of the East Coast.
That’s because on Plum Island scientists study some of the most infectious pathogens known to man. On the west side of the island, sealed behind decades-old metal doors and frozen inside tamper-proof containers, are vials of rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease virus, two of the most feared animal contagions of all time. A single detection of foot-and-mouth disease in the wild could wipe out entire herds of livestock and completely halt international agricultural trade. It’s the reason travelers must declare whether they have been on a farm, ranch or pasture when entering the United States. Plum Island is currently the only place in the country where the live virus can even be studied.
Over its nearly 70-year history, these scientists have been at the forefront of protecting America’s livestock industry, as well as the population at large. The work being done there is so important it is considered a matter of national security.
Plum Island Animal Disease Center will soon be decommissioned, to be replaced by a new, billion-dollar facility in the middle of the country. Its closure represents the end of an era - an era in which understanding the secrets of dangerous pathogens required clandestine experimentation, far away from urban population centers. As Plum Island’s facilities have aged, battered by time and the salty sea air, we’ve developed things like HEPA filters, airlocks and moonsuits that allow us to build these labs anywhere. That’s made it hard to justify the exorbitant expenses of an island operation that requires its own power grid, fire department and over a million gallons of diesel every year. Government officials have decided it would be easier, cheaper, and more efficient to do this work elsewhere. Somewhere less remote.
The new facility will open in the next couple of years in Manhattan, Kan. - a small city of about 50,000. It is one of 69 so-called Biosafety Level 4, or BSL-4 facilities in operation, under construction or planned worldwide. Increasingly, like Plum Island’s replacement, they are located in places where if a pathogen escaped, it could spread quickly with catastrophic results. It’s a trade-off between cost and safety. Because there will always be risks. No matter how safe and secure a lab is.
It all couldn’t have come at a more contentious time. A lab leak, after all, is one of the possible causes of the recent global pandemic that killed more than 6.9 million people. Scientific safety is now a high-stakes global issue. Especially when scientists are studying livestock diseases in the heart of American cattle country.
Getting to Plum Island is only possible via ferry, after an extensive background check by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which owns and operates the facility. Scientists from DHS work alongside colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Aged, blue school buses transport the some 400 island employees, while ospreys keep watch over their comings and goings from nests atop retired power lines. Curious locals have tried, and failed, to sneak onto Plum Island’s pristine beaches over the years, lured by myths about its checkered past, like a rumor that scientists at Plum Island created Lyme disease as a biological weapon. (The first cases of the tick-borne illness were identified just 17 miles northwest of the island in Lyme, Conn. There is no evidence Lyme was created in a lab.)
An abandoned, decaying facility on the island shoreline has been the subject of particular fascination. It’s Lab 257, the oldest biocontainment facility in the U.S. Originally built to store explosives, it was later rumored to have housed part of the U.S. biological weapons program that began in the early 1940s. (DHS said they haven’t verified Plum Island was ever involved.)
“Plum Island has been doing defense of the nation since the 1800s,” said Tod Companion, the director of Plum Island Animal Disease Center and a longtime DHS scientist.
Back in the 1950s, scientists knew little about biocontainment, so the thick, concrete walls that made Lab 257 good for storing explosives were thought to also be good for storing infected animals and viruses.
Lab 257 became the prototype for many more biocontainment labs to come. There’s been some trial-and-error over the years - the fact that it was on an island was always a good buffer. In 1978, for example, foot-and-mouth disease accidentally escaped from the lab. Fortunately, it never left the island. In an investigative report following the incident, Plum Island’s director at the time said that the water barrier was instrumental in containing the spread of the disease, according to a congressional hearing. When Plum Island lost power for three hours in 2002, there were fears that containment could have been compromised. Inspectors said at the time that there was no breach and no animals showed any signs of illness.
Other places haven’t been so lucky. History is dotted with accidental lab leaks. In 1967, lab workers in Germany and Serbia were infected with the deadly Marburg virus after being exposed to African green monkeys in the lab. The outbreak spread to 31 people, seven of whom died. Anthrax spores escaped from a Russian lab, killing dozens of people in the late 1970s. Thirty years later, separate incidents in Singapore, Taipei and China led to scientists getting sick with the SARS virus. And in 2007, foot-and-mouth disease virus leaked from a lab in the U.K., where it quickly spread to nearby farms and led to the culling of thousands of animals.
And, of course, there’s the possibility that the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of substandard lab safety practices. Intelligence officials haven’t been able to say definitively whether the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The U.S. cut off funding to the Wuhan lab in July over unanswered safety and security questions.
Since Lab 257’s debut, our understanding of biocontainment - and biosecurity - has evolved significantly. Nowadays, all the research at Plum Island happens in newer labs where ultra-contagious pathogens are kept behind strict lock-and-key. The high-containment labs, known as BSL-3-Ag (short for agriculture) are only accessible via floor-to-ceiling turnstiles watched by guards at all times. Scientists working in those labs must swap their street clothes - including earrings, watches and even wedding rings - for scrubs and cotton socks. Full-body white Tyvek suits are worn when studying the most infectious pathogens. To go to the cafeteria, or even other labs, scientists have to take a five-minute shower. Nothing is allowed to be taken out of containment. If scientists worked with infected animals, they must quarantine themselves from livestock for a minimum of five days.
“It’s a really constrained and difficult work environment,” Companion said. He took over as director during the pandemic and is working to document the island’s unique history before it’s shut down. There are “sacrifices people made to protect American agriculture as they worked here for the last 70 years,” he said.
It may seem extreme, especially since the pathogens studied at Plum Island aren’t harmful to humans. Many aren’t even deadly to animals. But their impact could still be enormously devastating. After exposure to foot-and-mouth disease, for example, cattle, pigs and other cloven-hoofed animals typically have to be slaughtered because the illness is so infectious. The virus is a resilient one; it can easily latch onto a pant leg or the bottom of a shoe, and survive for days outside the lab. It can even hide in a person’s nose hairs. The USDA says that a U.S. outbreak could result in economic losses of up to $200 billion.
“The ripple effects could be enormous,” Companion said. He pointed to Covid, which threw global supply chains into disarray for years and led to shortages of everything from raw materials to cars. “The supply chains in our country are very connected,” he said.
High-containment labs have layers upon layers of protection for scientists, the environment and the public. Machinery inside the labs keeps tainted air from being recirculated and thermal waste decontamination systems ensure that there’s no pathogens lurking in scientists’ trash. And though it may sound more like one of the Plum Island myths, it’s true that wild animals found on the island - such as the deer that sometimes swim there - are killed on-site by a sharpshooter employee that some call Grandma Deadeye.
But while Plum Island’s location gives it an advantage by keeping it far away from people and animals, it’s also become an increasingly burdensome and some say unnecessary way to conduct this research. Inclement weather, for example, can prevent scientists and maintenance staff from getting to work via ferry. More extreme island weather, too, causes damage to the aging facilities.
Upkeep alone costs the government $50 to $60 million per year. “Running a BSL is like owning a luxury car,” Companion said. Not to mention, the facilities aren’t equipped to be able to study zoonotic diseases - like SARS-CoV-2 - that can jump from animals to humans. And in an age where animal-to-human transmission is becoming increasingly common, scientists say this is a priority.
“With the advent of new containment technologies, it is now safe to build high containment facilities on the mainland,” said Chris Schutta, the head of biorisk management at Plum Island. “One of the issues with being out here in the middle of an island is the expense and logistics of getting anything done.”
The plans for the NBAF were set in motion 25 years ago, when Plum Island was already starting to age out of its usefulness. But even then - decades before the pandemic raised concerns about the potential for lab leaks - there was unease about the idea of moving research off Plum Island. Let alone to the heart of America’s livestock industry.
Lawmakers later held hearings about what they called “the silent proliferation of bio-laboratories in the United States” and the explosion of them abroad. An entire hearing was dedicated just to the closure of Plum Island.
“It sounds to me like what they are trying to do is take a gamble on getting a lot of money or maybe foot-and-mouth disease getting loose,” Democrat John Dingell of Michigan said in a 2008 congressional hearing titled “Germs, Viruses and Secrets.”
This type of research, while critical, has been highly scrutinized in the wake of the pandemic. Technological advancements have helped make laboratories safer and better equipped to do this work, but experts say that government rules and regulations are often confusing and burdensome, leaving much of the onus of biosafety on researchers themselves.
“From the inside, we’re looking at it saying there’s some cracks here,” said David Gillum, the associate vice president of Compliance and Research Administration at the University of Nevada at Reno. Many of the rules that do exist to govern high-risk research are “just security theater,” Gillum says.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002, enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, transferred control of Plum Island to DHS, while the USDA maintained its research and diagnostic programs. Two years later, a presidential directive issued by President George W. Bush tasked the heads of the USDA and DHS with developing a plan for “state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories that research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases,” according to the directive. To comply with that, it was announced that a new facility, to be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, would be erected.
Pat Roberts, a Republican senator at the time from Kansas, had already been rallying to make his state Silicon Valley of biodefense. “We put the food on America’s dinner table, so we take the responsibility of protecting the families around that table very seriously,” he said at the time. Kansas was chosen over sites in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.
“Plum Island became the place where we put things like foot-and-mouth because it is exquisitely dangerous,” Dingell told fellow lawmakers. “All there has to be is one contact and the disease moves from one animal to another and it goes like a wildfire across Kansas.”
The pushback led to an appropriations act that restricted DHS’s funding for the new facility until it completed a risk assessment on whether the work being done on Plum Island could safely be done in Kansas. DHS had concluded that the threat of a lab leak compared to a natural outbreak was extremely low, but Congress commissioned the National Research Council to review DHS’s assessment. The group reached a very different conclusion: They put the probability of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak originating from the lab at 70% over the next half century. “Ultimately, policymakers will need to decide whether the risks of constructing the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas are acceptable,” it said.
That report spurred outcry from locals and government officials at the time. People feared the facility’s location in storm-prone “Tornado Alley” was a recipe for disaster. DHS maintains that the report’s findings were largely unfounded; the USDA says it was based only on a small percentage of the NBAF’s early design plan. But some concerns raised in the report were addressed in the facility’s next-generation design, like modifications to better protect it against tornadoes, among other things. The report also prompted an additional environmental assessment that delayed the project, DHS said.
DHS and USDA say that there are added benefits to being close to America’s livestock industry. The facility’s proximity to the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, the largest concentration of animal pharmaceutical companies in the world, is one of them.
“The emergence and reemergence of dangerous zoonotic diseases are increasing,” said Jeffrey Silverstein, the deputy administrator for animal production and protection at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “The emergency is increasing.”
It takes time and money to build a facility of this scope. Initially estimated to cost $451 million, the price tag ended up being almost triple that, at nearly $1.25 billion. (Still, the costs over time will pale in comparison to running an entire island.) The NBAF’s sprawling campus is complete with water features and verdant landscaping. It’s a far cry from the aging labs at Plum Island. Construction at the NBAF was recently completed, but the USDA says it’ll be another couple of years until it’s actually up and running. Right now, it’s in the “science stand-up” phase, meaning staff are starting to turn on equipment and draft procedures. No biological materials are in the lab yet.
“All the safety measures that are included in the NBAF are to make sure that the surrounding communities are protected, and for our people, the animals and the agriculture,” Silverstein said.
Every detail down to how much light the windows allow in has been designed to prevent an outbreak from happening. Redundancy is paramount. It’s why the facility cost more than a billion dollars and almost a decade to build. The NBAF has capabilities never-before-seen in a maximum containment facility, said Joseph Kozlovac, a biorisk management expert for the Agricultural Research Service who has been at the USDA for two decades. For one, it’s almost completely tornado-proof. It has specialized doors that close automatically when a high-wind event is detected to protect the air systems and other machinery inside of containment. It’s also the first BSL-4 lab in the United States that can work with large animals like cattle and swine, one of only a handful around the world.
USDA is trying to build a culture among staff that’s similar to what you’d find on a naval aircraft carrier or nuclear power plant, Kozlovac said. Basically, they’re embracing the idea that accidents are likely to happen, which means building in layers of protection to ensure that when they do, it won’t lead to workers getting sick or a pathogen escaping. If staff discover an error, they’ll be required to do a deep-dive into what went wrong.
“It’s not like the facility is going to be error-free,” Silverstein said. “But errors are not going to paralyze it.”
The NBAF is the first USDA lab with its own communications team on-site. Part of their work entails meeting regularly with local leaders and stakeholders to increase transparency and address any concerns that may arise.
Scientists at the NBAF will be doing much of the same research that for the last six decades has been happening on Plum Island. They’ll continue to study viruses like foot-and-mouth disease and African Swine Fever, but they’ll also work on diseases that are transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes, like Rift Valley Fever - a type of hemorrhagic fever that can be passed to humans from a variety of domestic animals. Some will take advantage of the NBAF’s new capabilities to study emerging infectious diseases, like the increasingly common and often-fatal Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever spread by ticks that is endemic in parts of Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. The NBAF will also have a dedicated diagnostics unit that will collaborate with industry partners to bring tests for animals to market.
Most of the staff at Plum Island will not be moving to Kansas. Those who do plan to move are mostly USDA scientists. A public sale of Plum Island was supposed to help blunt the costs of building the NBAF. Former president Donald Trump was even rumored to have been interested in building a golf course there. But those plans were scrapped in 2020, after years of advocacy from environmental groups and some local lawmakers, who wanted to protect the island’s thriving ecological diversity and unique history. (Barracks dating back to the Spanish-American War sit untouched along its rocky coastline that’s still dotted with trenches and gun batteries.)
Companion, Plum Island’s director, doesn’t want it to be forgotten once it shutters.
“I’m really hoping we capture the legacy,” he said from his office overlooking the Long Island Sound. In the year and a half he’s been director, he’s grown to love the place. He even started wearing more plum-colored clothing, like a mascot for Plum Island’s fading glory.
In its 70-year history, the scientists at Plum Island have developed more than two dozen diagnostic tests and two vaccines for some of the gnarliest diseases out there. They helped defeat rinderpest, one of only two viruses that have officially been eradicated. No worker has ever gotten sick. No virus has ever escaped from the island.
“In the end, DHS assures us that modern technology will make it perfectly safe to handle foot-and-mouth disease in a high-tech biolab in the heart of livestock country,” Dingell said during the 2008 hearing. “I wonder if history will confirm their judgment.”