Lyme Disease on Plum Island: Fringe Conspiracy Theory or Government Cover-up?
By Smaranda Dumitru
As an animal disease center Plum Island has been the focus of many dark government conspiracies, from top secret biological weapon experimentation during the Cold War to the working ground for Nazi scientists recruited after World War II.
Perhaps scientific experimentation mixed with government classification is just a hotbed for saucy conspiracies, or maybe there is more to Plum Island than we suspect.
A more recent theory is that Lyme disease escaped from Plum Island, which may be the most plausible conspiracy theory yet. The theory went mainstream in 2004 with Michael C. Carroll’s book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.
Plum Island is located off the coast of Long Island, New York. It was used as a military base during the Spanish-American war and in 1954 was turned into a government animal disease center.The center was established to study foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, a highly contagious disease that is rare in humans but can ravage farms and the livestock industry.
While the center was run by the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2002 during talks of selling the island it was transferred to the United States Department of Homeland Security.
The reason some believe Lyme disease escaped Plum Island is because the island is located just a few miles off the coast of Lyme, Connecticut, which is where the first outbreak of Lyme was observed in 1975. While scientists say that all animals on the island are killed to prevent the possible spread of diseases, conspiracy theorists argue that birds regularly fly between the island and the mainland and thus are able to spread any diseases they may pick up.
“I don’t know if Lyme came from Plum Island,” said April Ferguson*, who is a chief strategy officer for a Hudson Valley policy-oriented think tank, “but it’s weird that no one wants to talk about it, doctors are scared to treat and diagnose it, [and] the government doesn’t talk about it.”
Ferguson started considering a link between Lyme disease and Plum Island after she saw a press release describing how the Centers for Disease Control were closing a Texas A & M University biodefense lab due to outbreaks of Brucella and Coxiella burnetii. Brucella and Coxiella burnetii are both tick-borne bacterial pathogens. This led Ferguson to wonder about Plum Island. Both the lab at Plum Island and the one at Texas A&M are Biosafety Level 3 labs and study similar infectious diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, and Rift Valley fever.
Ferguson represents Lyme patients pro bono as an attorney. She considers the government’s attitude towards Lyme very strange. The number of cases jumped tenfold in one year, she pointed out, and insurance companies don’t cover antibiotics for Lyme, even though one can easily get antibiotics for any other condition. “Lyme disease is taboo and I don’t understand why,” she said.
Jennifer Reid who runs a Lyme Disease support group in Ridgefield, Connecticut, said that the connection between Lyme disease and Plum Island is an “interesting story.” It does not come up during her meetings, though. “People are focused on getting better. They are not looking for someone to blame,” Reid explained. Reid blames climate change and deforestation for the influx of Lyme into suburban communities, including Lyme, Connecticut.
Reid said individuals may turn to conspiracy theories such as the one about Lyme disease and Plum Island when they are frustrated. “It’s very hard for people to understand why we haven’t made more progress,” she said. “They want something to make sense. They don’t understand why it’s (Lyme disease) not taken more seriously and given more attention.”
Indeed, while the relationship between Lyme disease and Plum Island may not be real, what is evident is that Lyme disease leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
From diagnosis to funding and research, many who suffer from Lyme are frustrated, confused and angry at the general state of Lyme disease treatment. Perhaps turning to government coverups on secretive islands isn’t too crazy after all.
*April Ferguson’s name has been changed at her request.
Plum Island Animal Disease Center
Location: Orient Point, NY
Since 1954, the DHS S&T Office of National Laboratory (ONL) Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) has served as the nation’s premier defense against accidental or intentional introduction of transboundary animal diseases (a.k.a. foreign animal diseases) including foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). PIADC is the only laboratory in the nation that can work on live FMD virus (FMDV). The lab and its staff of nearly 400 employees provide a host of high-impact, indispensable preparedness and response capabilities, including vaccine R&D, diagnostics, training, and bioforensics among others.
PIADC’s Work Protects Our Agricultural and Food Industries
PIADC scientists, the facilities they use, and the work they conduct on FMD is essential to protecting our agricultural and food industries. FMD is a highly contagious viral infection of cloven-hoofed domestic and wildlife animals (i.e., cows, swine, deer, etc.). Markets for livestock, meat, milk, and other animal products contribute more than $1.5 trillion annually to the U.S. economy and represent one-sixth of our gross national product. The results of an FMD outbreak would have widespread economic consequences that negatively affect:
22 million U.S. jobs
2.2 million farms
970,000 restaurant food service locations
210,000 traditional food stores
34,000 food and beverage manufacturing facilities
1,800 slaughtering and processing facilities
PIADC’s Strong Partnerships Promote Transboundary Animal Disease Prevention and Containment
With ONL’s stewardship, PIADC provides oversight, technical expertise, coordination, and facilitation for DHS S&T agricultural defense countermeasure programs with other agencies. PIADC provides a safe, secure, and compliant environment to execute mission-specific objectives.
DHS’s Transboundary Animal Disease Countermeasure Branch works in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at Plum Island to research and develop new vaccines and diagnostic tests to respond to and control transboundary animal disease outbreaks. DHS is responsible for operation of the laboratory.
The Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL) operated by USDA APHIS is an internationally recognized facility devoted to diagnosing foreign animal diseases. FADDL maintains the North American Foot-and-Mouth-Disease Vaccine Bank at PIADC (personnel working in the vaccine bank are responsible for performing safety and potency testing of new antigen lots of FMD vaccine, and periodically testing the quality of stored antigen). FADDL also provides training to state, federal, and foreign officials in the clinical and laboratory diagnosis of foreign animal diseases through the FADD school.
PIADC Laboratory Facility Information
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center operates Biosafety Level (BSL) 2, BSL-3 Enhanced, Animal Biosafety Level 3 (ABSL-3) and Biosafety Level 3 Agriculture (BSL-3Ag) laboratory and animal research facilities. PIADC utilizes well- established, contemporary biosafety and biosecurity practices and procedures to ensure the safety and security of personnel, the facility and materials including the animal disease-causing organisms under study. These measures help prevent laboratory-acquired infections, cross contamination within the facility and the release or escape of these organisms into the environment. The stringent and rigorously observed safety and security measures for the biocontainment facility include:
Restricted access to only authorized and trained employees and approved visitors.
Trained security professionals and various surveillance systems.
Biocontainment laboratory facility such as vivarium and effluent decontamination systems operating under strict biosafety and biosecurity requirements including meeting or exceeding those required by the federal select agent program.
A careful and comprehensive program of preventive maintenance performed on laboratory biosafety systems including the critical back up or redundant systems that provide an extra level of protection.
A well-trained and skilled operations and maintenance staff monitor laboratory air handling systems in real-time to help maintain biocontainment. The laboratory spaces on Plum Island are isolated from non-biocontainment areas using a system that draws fresh air in and filters the air before being exhausted from the facility. In addition, the inside of the biocontainment laboratory is kept at a lower air pressure than the ambient air outside. This helps ensure air inside the biocontainment laboratory does not leave the facility without first being adequately filtered.
Employees are required to take special precautions while working in a biocontainment laboratory to ensure they do not contaminate themselves or inadvertently carry disease-causing agents outside the laboratory. To accomplish this critical biosafety objective, PIADC utilizes a combination of specialized containment equipment, facility design, trained staff and established procedures and practices.For example, personnel are required to change clothes prior to entering the biocontainment laboratory and to remove laboratory-provided clothing and shower before leaving specific areas within the biocontainment facility, and again when leaving the biocontainment facility at the end of the work period.
Prior to gaining access to the biocontainment facility, all employees and visitors must agree to observe a Personal Recognizant Quarantine for a defined time period which precludes these individuals from having contact with animal species that are susceptible to the disease-causing organisms under study at the facility.
All biocontainment waste which leaves the facility must undergo biological decontamination process. These include chemical (liquid and gaseous) and physical (heat and incineration) methods.
What PIADC Does Not Do:
Does not perform research on human or prion diseases. The primary diseases that PIADC conducts research on are not transmissible to humans. We do, however, encounter and work with some zoonotics across the diagnostic and training missions. Our staff is trained and certified in stringent biosurety measures to handle these samples to assure a safe laboratory work environment.
Does not perform research on avian influenza.
Does not and has not performed research on Lyme disease. Discover more information on the history of Lyme disease.
Does not perform research on West Nile virus; however, the facility was asked to assist when an outbreak of West Nile virus affected horses on Long Island. PIADC researchers assisted in the collection of samples, as well as an initial development and testing of a West Nile virus vaccine for horses. Discover more about the history of West Nile through USDA and more about West Nile through the Centers for Disease Control.
PIADC researchers do not perform classified research. DHS and USDA scientists submit research for peer-reviewed publication in national and international scientific journals, as well as present their research at scientific conferences.
Did You Know?
In 2012, PIADC scientists developed the first, licensed FMD vaccine that does not require live FMDV in the manufacturing process. This means that for the first time, these next-generation FMD vaccines can be safely manufactured on the U.S. mainland. PIADC’s groundbreaking innovation promotes enhanced biosecurity, efficiency, and rapid response capability. PIADC scientists also collaborate with animal health industry partners through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements to help support the transition of transboundary animal disease countermeasure product candidates.