MSU lab theft alerts nation on bioterrorism
East Lansing, Mich.-As experts report that United States' livestock and food crops are increasingly vulnerable to terror attacks, Michigan State University (MSU) officials tested the nation's emergency system when two vials of genetically altered bacteria turned up missing from a secured lab.
University police have a suspect - an employee with access to laboratories at MSU's Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building who allegedly lifted two vials of Actinobaccillus pleuropneumoniae, also known as APP, on Sept. 13. The bacteria are harmless to humans but can be fatal to swine, causing pneumonia and possibly encephalitis. Researchers were developing it as a basis for a vaccine, MSU officials say.
At presstime, no one had been arrested and charged, but police say they've seized the stolen materials and evidence obtained suggests the biological samples were destroyed.
"We have secured laboratories, well protected with good protocols," says Dr. Lonnie King, dean of MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine. "If a theft can happen here, it can happen anywhere."
Chain of command
Introducing this natural bacterium to the country's swine population likely would not "devastate the pork industry," as a Sept. 19 Wall Street Journal article reported, turning the incident into national news, says Eric Newman, director of the National Pork Board's Swine Health Information and Research. But considering the threat of terrorism and a National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report outlining bioterrorism risks concerning U.S. agriculture, university officials acted fast, MSU spokesman J.T. Forbes says.
"From where I sat, when we got news of this, we immediately notified our state and local officials and the system worked," Forbes says. "This happened on a Friday afternoon. There was never any indication of terrorism or some sort of hyper virus or hyper bacteria to be released on the world. Still, by Monday, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), police and our staff were all on the same page."
Federal and industry authorities were contacted as a precaution, King adds.
"If this would've happened two years ago, we might not have thought anything of it," he says. "This isn't some fancy pathogen or foreign animal disease; it's an organism we commonly see in hogs."
On the front lines
The quick communication demonstrated among MSU officials and local and federal authorities is what the United States needs to expand, because terrorists likely won't strike a single farm but many agriculture regions at once, says Dr. David Franz, vice president for Chemical and Biological Defense at Southern Research Institute in Frederick, Md.
Franz, a veterinarian on the NAS panel spotlighting U.S. agriculture security, says while industry and government officials have made great strides thwarting naturally occurring biological outbreaks such as foot and mouth disease, the focus must shift to multiple, simultaneous epidemics spurred by manmade events. Veterinarians could be first to identify large-scale attacks, he says.
"Bioterrorism takes very little technology," Franz says. "All you have to do is introduce a highly infectious animal virus to various herds; they're a lot harder to contain than anthrax or a plague.
"Veterinarians need to be able to recognize unusual situations and know how to react."
NAS panel chair Harley Moon, DVM, says the profession must raise its awareness of the possibility of exotic, unanticipated, and in some cases, foreign animal diseases.
"Veterinarians are our first line of defense," says Moon, an Iowa State University professor and one-time director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. "It's going to be the local veterinarian if there's terrorism in animal agriculture."
In recent months, the federal government has poured millions of dollars into United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
antiterrorism programs. In a written statement, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says, "Many of these efforts identified in the NAS report are already under way."
Forbes says he feels better having witnessed the vigilance and knowledge of MSU veterinary medical leaders.
"I have little kids at home and let me tell you, I feel a lot safer after having seen how all this rolled out," he says.