For almost 50 years, scientists at a secret laboratory on Plum Island off Long Island in New York have studied live foot-and-mouth virus. If released, the virus would devastate the 45 million dollar U.S. livestock industry.

“Here at Plum Island, we are in a constant state of readiness 7 days a week, 365 days a year, heightened even more now that our neighbor Britain has the disease in earnest,” says veterinarian Thomas McKenna.

The researchers have developed a promising new vaccine that may be an improvement on the current vaccines available, but it is at least 3 years away from being used in the field. One problem with vaccination is that most countries ban imports of vaccinated meat because it is impossible todistinguish a vaccinated animal from an infected one.

Plum Island can be reached only by boat. The scientists who work there are required to remove their work clothes before leaving the island by ferry every day. They must also blow their noses and spit to rid themselves of any traces of the disease. “There are multiple layers of security to keep thevirus from getting off the island,” says microbiologist Peter Mason. “We take showers, our clothing is decontaminated, materials are incinerated or chemically treated and we have an extensive system of purifying the air that comes out of the lab.”

About 75 federal officials from agencies ranging from the Agricultural Department to the CIA met last week to review plans for addressing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth in the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said their plans call for treating an outbreak as a naturaldisaster, in which the affected states take primary responsibility and call on federal resources as needed. “We are currently treating it like it’s a probable likelihood,” says Bruce Baughman of FEMA. The U.S. has not had a case of foot-and-mouth since 1929.

At the meeting, officials described arrangements for earth-moving equipment to bury thousands of animal carcasses and the drafting of emergency orders that could suspend environmental regulations to allow quick burial of affected livestock.

USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz says these preparations do not mean an outbreak will happen here. “I was in the military for 10 years,” he says. “We did mock exercises every month. That didn’t mean war was imminent.”

But David Hoxsoll, the director of the laboratory at Plum Island, thinks the odds are “quite great” that foot-and-mouth will reach the United States accidentally. “There is a lot of tourism and opportunities for the virus to accidentally get back [from abroad],” he says. “And in addition, we arealways concerned about the potential for bioterrorists using foreign animal disease to achieve some of their objectives.”

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