Searching for a Foot-and-Mouth Vaccine

A small island off the tip of New York's Long Island is ground zero in the fight against foot-and-mouth disease.

At the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, concern has been heightened by the outbreak in Great Britain. Here, researchers have been working since 1954 on tests to diagnose the disease and on a vaccine to prevent it.

"I think the chances of foot-and-mouth coming to the U.S. are higher today than they were three months ago, before there was foot-and-mouth in Europe," said Thomas McKenna, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The research at Plum Island entails unraveling a virus so complicated it has seven strains and 60 subgroups. Current vaccines suppress the virus, but do not contain it. An improved vaccine, which is under development on the island is still years away.

"The characteristics we would like in a new vaccine would be the ability to stop the virus spreading by the vaccinated animals and the ability to ensure protection from the disease almost immediately," said Peter Mason, a foot-and-mouth disease researcher. "That's a tall order for a vaccine."

Extra Precautions Taken on Island

Foot-and-mouth is extremely contagious. It can be carried by the wind, or on shoes, so precautions here are extraordinary.

The only way to reach the secure island is by ferry. That's how staff and research animals get here. Scientists who work with the virus must take elaborate measures to ensure that when they leave the office, the virus doesn't leave with them. And visitors, for the most part, are not allowed.

"We blow our nose, and we cough to try to expel [the virus] …. Then we wash our hands and nails very thoroughly with a scrub brush and finger nail file and we take a full body shower, including washing their hair," said Thomas Sawicki, safety manager at Plum Island.

As concern about the disease grows, U.S. farmers are sending the lab more and more tissue samples from suspect animals. So far all of the tests have shown up negative.

"Every time I get a negative result, I breathe easier," McKenna said.