Torres-Vélez, a veterinary pathologist, takes a ferry here five days a week as head of the Foreign Animal Disease
Diagnostic Lab. But tonight is different. A veterinarian at the New York State Fair has reported a cow with symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)—a virus that leaves livestock covered with lesions, too emaciated to produce milk or meat, and so contagious that an outbreak would halt all dairy and beef production in the U.S. When the helicopter lands, Torres-Vélez receives the cow’s saliva sample and rushes to his lab. Within four hours his team has ruled out FMD.
Plum Island is a biosafety level 3 lab, equipped to deal with diseases that don’t infect humans but are contagious and possibly fatal in animals. Vaccines developed here could stop viral outbreaks in the U.S., as well as in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—nations where FMD still poses a threat.
Given the stakes and the intrigue, Plum Island has gained a reputation for being secretive and covert. That may be deserved. A recent visitor found scientists eager to discuss their work yet careful to abide by public relations rules not to say too much. Photography was restricted unless an escort directed the camera. (Verboten: photographing the ferry dock from the Long Island side.) And yet soon Plum Island may be superseded. Within a decade, the lab is expected to move to a brand-new biosafety level 4 facility in Kansas, where scientists can study Nipah virus encephalitis and other livestock diseases that could be fatal to humans. Plans for the facility are stacked on Torres-Vélez’s desk.
Emergency Landing (Not Pictured)
The U.S. Government monitors over 100 animal diseases, including anthrax and rabies. If a foreign disease (one that's not endemic to the U.S., such as foot-and-mouth disease) is detected, the saliva sample in question is helicoptered to Plum Island for analysis, where one person has permission to receive it. Employees must be on call 24 hours a day. Disclaimer: The numbered areas below are based on author memory. Plum Island would not confirm locations.