The Bush Administration relied on a flawed study to conclude that research on foreign animal diseases could be moved from Plum Island to the U.S. mainland, according to congressional investigators.
The Homeland Security Department "does not have evidence" that foot-and-mouth disease research can be conducted on the U.S. mainland without significant risk of an animal epidemic, Congress'' Government Accountability Office concluded.

Still, the Bush Administration is not backing down on its view that modern laboratories have the highest security to prevent an escape of the virus, reports The Associated Press.

Looking specifically at FMD, which the U.S. has avoided since 1929, research has been confined to the 840-acre Plum Island, N.Y., since 1957. However, that facility is outmoded and a new National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility is in the works, which also will study diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans.

Five mainland sites are in the running: Athens, Ga.; Flora, Miss.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio. One Homeland Security study found the numbers of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the finalists ranged from 542,507 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia. Plum Island is a possibility as well, although Homeland Security officials are spending much time and money holding forums in an attempt to convince residents that the new lab would be safe.

"We found that DHS has not conducted or commissioned any study to determine whether FMD work can be done safely on the U.S. mainland," testified Nancy Kingsbury, GAO''s managing director for applied research and methods.

"While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks," countered Jay Cohen, an undersecretary of Homeland Security. The department reported that risk assessments are being conducted at each proposed site, and that the public will be able to comment on the findings.

The Administration based its decision of safe mainland research on a 2002 USDA study on whether it was technically feasible to do the work onshore. Kingsbury said there''s a major distinction between what is technically feasible and "what is possible, given the potential for human error."

"We found that the study was selective in what it considered," she said. "It did not assess the history of FMD virus releases or other dangerous pathogens, either in the United States or elsewhere."

It also did not address the dangers of working with infected large animals; the virus can be carried in a person''s lungs, nostrils or other body parts, making him or her a possible vehicle for a virus escape. The study also did not consider the history of accidents in laboratories, the GAO said.

The GAO report listed seven "accidents" on Plum Island between 1971 and 2004. "These incidents involved human error, lack of proper maintenance, equipment failure and deviation from standard operating procedures," according to GAO. "Many were not a function of the facility''s age or the lack of technology and could happen in any facility today."

Source: The Associated Press.