Plum Island lab: 'Still here' and relevant

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center continues to

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center continues to do groundbreaking research, including development of a breakthrough foot-and-mouth disease vaccine announced last spring. (Nov. 13, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center continues to do groundbreaking research, including development of a breakthrough foot-and-mouth disease vaccine announced last spring, even as its work gets overshadowed by publicity about the government's plan to shut the lab and sell the island.

The new vaccine headed toward commercial production is the first hoof-and-mouth vaccine that can be made on the U.S. mainland, because it is not created from the live virus.

"The new vaccine that has been developed is a good example of the really cutting-edge research that is being done at Plum Island," said Ron DeHaven, chief executive of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The federal Department of Homeland Security lab off the North Fork is likely to continue operating at least into the mid-2020s, while the government moves to build a more secure lab in Kansas where foreign animal diseases that can also affect humans can be studied. But with all the news about selling the island after the $1.4-billion National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility opens, Plum Island staffers say some people think the facility has already closed.

"There is a lot of confusion," said Dr. Luis Rodriguez, who heads the vaccine research team. "But we're still here and we're focused on our mission and research. We take great pride in what we do."

Dr. Larry Barrett, lab director for six years, said a move to Kansas is at least 10 years away, and in the meantime the lab is increasing its workload.

"We have to have this laboratory ready on a daily basis to respond to the needs of this country," Barrett said. "We've enhanced this facility. We've added on a couple more animal rooms to increase the vaccine trials last year." And the water supply, electrical system and backup generators have been upgraded in recent years.

Barrett, who lives in East Moriches, added, "We're looking at other capital improvements" such as wastewater treatment upgrades.

Plum Island's work focuses on keeping out of this country three diseases: foot-and-mouth, classic swine fever and African swine fever. That entails diagnostic work, training of more than 150 visiting veterinarians annually and research fellows who may staff the lab and the Kansas replacement in the future, and research on vaccines. That is done by a staff of about 100 scientists and 300 support personnel, 40 percent of whom commute by government ferry from Long Island and the rest from Connecticut.

Rodriguez, who has worked on Plum Island -- part of Southold Town -- since 1997, said eight scientists led by Marvin Grubman, of Southold, and backed by more than 50 assistants and support staff developed the world's first molecular foot-and-mouth vaccine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted a conditional license last June for its use in cattle.

Older vaccines carry the risk of transmitting infection because they use a live foot-and-mouth virus, Rodriguez said. But with the molecular vaccine, Grubman took the pieces of the virus that induce animals to create their own protection against it and put them into a defective human cold virus. Then he injected the virus into animals where "it makes antibodies and the animal becomes immune to the disease. The animal actually makes the vaccine for you."

Rodriguez said that besides not using the live virus, the vaccine "has a number of advantages. You can store the vaccine ready-made; you don't have to reformulate the vaccine to use it," as with previous vaccines. "It's easy to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals" so they all don't have to be killed as a precaution.

And Plum Island researchers are looking for new vaccines for other strains of foot-and-mouth disease and the swine diseases.

African swine fever has been a particularly tough adversary. "There is no vaccine that actually works against this virus despite years of research," Rodriguez said. "But we have some candidates."

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