Manhattan-area citizens with concerns about the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility have used testimony by the Government Accountability Office to argue that foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) research should not be done in the United States except on Plum Island.
I would like to provide a little clarification as to what GAO testimony is — and what it isn’t — as well as some information about the legislative outcome.
A political science colleague of mine did a year-long sabbatical at the GAO, so I forwarded the GAO material to him and asked his opinion. Initially, he noted, “The document you sent is testimony, not a study.”
He then elaborated, “GAO does two kinds of research [projects). First, those driven by the expertise and concerns of those inside the organization. Secondly, those driven by congressional committee requests.
“GAO prefers to minimize the latter because these requests are often politically motivated and can put the GAO in the middle of a partisan brawl. These requests are drafted by nonresearchers and require negotiation and interaction between GAO and the committee before they are honored.”
Thus, testimony tends to be less authoritative than a full-blown research project based on established GAO expertise.
In this particular case, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce didn’t ask the full-blown study question of whether FMD research could be done safely on the mainland.
Rather, they asked what evidence the Department of Homeland Security had to support its decision that this work could be done safely off Plum Island. The testimony on May 22 indicated DHS had not supplied the GAO with proof that FMD studies on the mainland are safe.
Nonetheless, the U.S. House and Senate voted to authorize work with FMD on the mainland. The authorization was in the Farm Bill the president vetoed and Congress overrode. Of note, the U.S. House members that called for the GAO investigation of DHS and its stance on FMD research voted to override the veto. So, in the end, they themselves sanctioned FMD studies off Plum Island.
By moving forward on the FMD issue, Congress has taken a positive step toward solving a long-standing problem with foreign animal disease research—working on an island.
Creating new livestock vaccines and therapeutics quickly is difficult when the research lab is inaccessible by land. Dedicated scientists and support staff are required to spend priceless added hours commuting to and from work.
Foreign animal diseases are coming to the U.S.; the global movement of people, animals and goods guarantees that to be true. The West Nile virus got here, and others will also. Moreover, handwritten plans for using foreign animal pathogens as weapons against us were found in the caves of Afghanistan.
Therefore, a slow pace — with U.S. scientists isolated under less than optimal research and development conditions — would be irresponsible. Congress removed a significant impediment by authorizing FMD research on the mainland.
Vice President for Research, K-State