Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Hot Zone In The Heartland

thebulletin | Before 1990, there had been only two BSL-4 labs in the United States: one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, and another at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D.), in Fort Detrick, Maryland. In the nineteen-nineties, three were added. In the first seven years after 9/11, the United States opened ten more. In a 2007 report, Keith Rhodes, then the chief technologist in the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.)—the independent watchdog that conducts research for Congress—observed that there was “a major proliferation of high-containment BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place in the United States.” Rhodes counted fifteen known American BSL-4 labs (including N.B.A.F.) but suggested that there could be others; the number of BSL-3 labs appeared to have increased even more. “No single federal agency knows how many such labs there are in the United States,” Rhodes wrote, and “no one is responsible for determining the aggregate risks associated with the expansion of these high-containment labs.” In theory, the Federal Select Agent Program keeps tabs, since any lab in possession of a substance on its list has to register; a 2017 report from the G.A.O. counted two hundred and seventy-six high-containment select-agent labs in the United States. But the actual number is almost certainly higher, because not every dangerous pathogen is on the federal list.

In the summer of 2008, at the same time that D.H.S. was choosing a site for N.B.A.F., the F.B.I. announced that it had found the sender of the anthrax letters: Bruce Ivins, a mentally unstable biodefense researcher with high-level security clearances at U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D. Ivins died of an apparent suicide before he could be officially charged; subsequently, journalists have raised questions about some of the evidence against him. All the same, the possibility of Ivins’s involvement raised disturbing questions for those who work in biodefense. “A more ominous threat than terrorists taking up biology,” the epidemiologist Ali Khan wrote, in his 2016 book “The Next Pandemic,” could be “biologists taking up terrorism.”

Manhattan is surrounded by a rolling sea of golden grass—the Flint Hills, North America’s last remaining tallgrass prairie. “No grass anywhere can put weight on cattle more quickly or more economically,” Jim Joy, a historian of ranching, wrote. In the nineteenth century, cattlemen from Texas and elsewhere began driving their herds overland to graze in the Flint Hills. Today, Kansas is at the geographical center of the American beef industry. It is the third-largest cattle-producing state in the country, and its immediate neighbors—Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Colorado—are all in the top ten.

During and after the N.B.A.F. site-selection process, many scientists found it baffling that anyone would consider installing a high-containment animal-disease laboratory in the middle of livestock country. “It doesn’t make sense—it’s just insane,” Laura H. Kahn, a physician and research scholar at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, told me. Abigail Conrad, who was a developmental biologist at K-State when D.H.S. was making its choice, said that the decision “defies reason”; her husband, Gary, also a biologist, called it “beyond ludicrous,” “almost criminal,” and “genuinely stupid.”

Once infected with foot-and-mouth, animals with cloven hooves—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, deer, bison—come down with fevers and painful blisters. A cow’s milk production can decline. Adult animals can lose weight, and young ones can die. An animal that recovers can still transmit the disease to others. According to the authors of a 2013 paper in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine, in countries that are officially foot-and-mouth-free but experience occasional outbreaks, “the costs involved in regaining free status have been enormous.” During the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in England, exclusion zones made travel difficult; tourism from overseas declined by ten per cent. The ultimate cost of containing the outbreak was nearly five billion in today’s dollars. Its source remains undetermined.

In 2007, Britain experienced another, smaller foot-and-mouth outbreak, with only eight confirmed cases. In that instance, investigators were able to trace the infection to the Pirbright Institute, a world-renowned high-containment animal-disease research facility in Surrey. A building at Pirbright had an aging, faulty drainpipe; heavy rains probably washed the live virus from the defective drain out into the open, where truck tires picked it up. According to the G.A.O., one reason to confine foot-and-mouth study to an island is that “there is always some risk of a release from any biocontainment facility.” In fact, for just this reason, foot-and-mouth disease cannot be brought onto the U.S. mainland without the explicit permission of the Secretary of Agriculture.