Foot-and-Mouth Disease: Playing With Fire

It’s fairly common knowledge that if you’re doing dangerous research you do it someplace safe, away from possible harm. That is, after all, one of the rationalizations given for why we nuked so many Pacific islands testing out the atomic bomb. We preferred they get glassed rather than patches of the American Southwest.

There’s also another piece of common knowledge: Murphy’s law is very much real, mistakes happen. Secured facilities are breached, safety protocols aren’t always followed, and systems break down. These events aren’t a matter of if, they’re a matter of when.

That’s what makes this latest bit of news so monumentally stupid. The Bush Administration, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that moving the nation’s Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) research lab from its current secluded and secured location and place it smack-dab in the middle of cattle country in Manhattan, KS.

The Bush administration is likely to move its research on one of the most contagious animal diseases from an isolated island laboratory to the U.S. mainland near herds of livestock, raising concerns about a catastrophic outbreak.


Skeptical Democrats in Congress are demanding to see internal documents they believe highlight the risks and consequences of the decision. An epidemic of the disease, foot and mouth, which only affects animals, could devastate the livestock industry.

Why all the concern about a simple animal virus? Simple, FMD is the cattle equivalent of the Dark Age’s “black death”. It completely decimates cattle populations and the only means we have to combat it is to slaughter entire herds if so much as one cow is affected. What’s worse FMD is highly mobile and highly disruptive.

Foot-and-mouth virus can be carried on a worker’s breath or clothes, or vehicles leaving a lab, and is so contagious it has been confined to Plum Island, N.Y., for more than a half-century — far from commercial livestock. The existing lab is 100 miles northeast of New York City in the Long Island Sound, accessible only by ferry or helicopter. Researchers there who work with the live virus are not permitted to own animals at home that would be susceptible, and they must wait at least a week before attending outside events where such animals might perform, such as a circus.


A simulated outbreak of the disease — part of an earlier U.S. government exercise called “Crimson Sky” — ended with fictional riots in the streets after the simulation’s National Guardsmen were ordered to kill tens of millions of farm animals, so many that troops ran out of bullets. In the exercise, the government said it would have been forced to dig a ditch in Kansas 25 miles long to bury carcasses. In the simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages.

We currently have a secured facility, in a remote location, working with a potentially catestrophic livestock disease. An outbreak would be so severe that, in an effort to prevent it from spreading, our National Guard would run out of bullets. This isn’t some laughing matter. You don’t move a facility and research like this because you think safety measures are up to the task.

Isolation is the only sure way to keep this from spreading. This disease is like a wildfire and, like any fire, only a fool would put it next to fuel. But then, could we expect any less from this administration?

(edited by DrGail)

2 Responses to “Foot-and-Mouth Disease: Playing With Fire”

  1. Cee says:

    The only U.S. facility allowed to research the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease experienced several accidents with the feared virus, the Bush administration acknowledged Friday.

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