Aerial photo of Plum Island
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USDA Research at the
Plum Island Animal Disease Center

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[Note: PIADC land and facilities were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in June 2003.]

From Agricultural Research magazine, December 1995

An Island Fortress for Biosecurity

As far back as the beginnings of this nation, Plum Island has stood for protection.

George Washington recognized the importance of this 840-acre island, strategically situated as it is in Long Island Sound overlooking the approach to the harbor of New York. In 1789 he signed an act to commission the first lighthouse on Plum Island.

In 1897, the U.S. government acquired 130 acres on the island to construct harbor and coastal defense facilities. Two years later, the island became home to Fort Terry, where soldiers kept a sharp eye for German U-boats throughout World War II.

It wasn't until 1954 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture acquired the island and established the modern-day Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), a high-security biocontainment facility, to safeguard against a different kind of invader: foreign animal diseases that could decimate this nation's livestock.

Aerial view of Plum Island
Plum Island houses a high-security biological containment facility in which scientists study foreign animal diseases and develop safeguards to prevent these diseases from decimating U.S. livestock. Orient Point, New York, is in the background. Photo by Keith Weller. (K6085-5)

 

Agriculture has long played a key role in the history of Plum Island since Samuel Wyllys bought it from Chief Wyandanch, sachem of the Montauk Indian tribe, on April 27, 1659. Part of their agreement was that Wyllys would be able to pasture his cattle on the island free from interference.

The world's become a smaller place than it was in the days when Wyllys—and later the Tuthills and Schellingers, Beebes, and Bedells—pastured sheep and cattle on the little island in Long Island Sound.

Today a few hours is all that's needed for a jet to bring into this country animals or animal products from some far-flung corner of the world, some perhaps carrying a virulent disease that could wreak havoc in our $90 billion U.S. livestock industry. Plum Island Animal Disease Center is our first line of defense against such a disaster.

Scientists and veterinarians with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are working to provide better protection against these unseen invaders.

USDA's Plum Island team cooperates not only with the international scientific community, but also with nearby facilities such as Yale University and the University of Connecticut to bring the latest scientific expertise to bear against the threat of foreign animal disease.

It's also attentive to the input of industry groups such as the National Cattlemen's Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Milk Producers Federation, and the American Sheep Industry.

Plum Island is itself a major player on the international livestock disease research scene. Veterinarians from Canada come to the island for training in recognizing the signs of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and other foreign animal diseases. And the island is home to an FMD vaccine bank supported by Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

There are no secrets at Plum Island—but there is great caution. In foot-and-mouth disease alone, the Plum Island scientific team is working with a virus that, if loosed on the U.S. livestock population, could cost anywhere from $54 million to $690 million to control even a small outbreak—and that doesn't even consider the approximately $4 billion annual loss in export sales of U.S. beef.

Because of the dreadful potential consequences of that one disease, Congress decreed in the early 1950's that the FMD virus could only be studied off the U.S. mainland—in other words, on an island.

Today, biotechnology has advanced to the point where such work could safely be done in a facility on the mainland, but the island setting offers the U.S. livestock industry an extra measure of protection. Since top-quality animal research requires that, at some point, a possible new vaccine or treatment be tested on the potential recipient species, housing those animals on the island, miles across the water from any commercial livestock operation, ensures that we won't accidentally endanger the nation's livestock population.

As you'll see in the foot-and-mouth disease feature on page 4, keeping U.S. livestock safe is a team effort. ARS and APHIS researchers have worked together on development of possible new vaccines. While ARS scientists focus their efforts on discovery—such as new protective and diagnostic measures against foreign animal diseases—APHIS personnel train others in the rapid recognition of these diseases, maintain the emergency vaccine bank, and keep a vigilant eye on incoming animals from countries with livestock diseases different than our own.

In 1994, ARS and APHIS personnel on Plum Island began moving into a newly renovated research center on the island. This past summer, that transition was completed, and now a single building is home to both parts of USDA's foreign animal disease team. Also, the island is now under a single director, and all PIADC personnel have a single goal: protection of the U.S. livestock population.

Floyd P. Horn
Administrator, ARS

Lonnie J. King
Administrator, APHIS

 


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