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Virulent Fears, But Not Enough To Make A Case
New York Newsday, February 26, 2004

A review of Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, by Michael Christopher Carroll.

Most Long Islanders probably don't need an introduction to Plum Island. Since the 1950s, this wooded sliver of land just off the North Fork has been home to a leading research center for animal diseases. Over the past three decades, the press has brought to light plenty of disturbing news about the island, from escaped germs to lax security to gushing sewage spills. Last October, a government report surfaced that criticized the center (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), warning that some of the viruses studied there might make potent bioterrorist weapons, and that access to them needs to be tightened. In "Lab 257," first-time author Michael Christopher Carroll takes on the important task of making sense of Plum Island's secretive, scandal-ridden history. Unfortunately, he's created a muddle.

It's not for want of research. Carroll has been digging up Plum Island dirt since 1997, talking to current and past employees, filing Freedom of Information Act applications to get classified material and visiting the island itself six times. (He was eventually barred for national security reasons.) He traces Plum Island's history, from its earliest days as an Army research facility for germ warfare, through its four decades as part of the Department of Agriculture.

The USDA has done some important work on Plum Island to protect America's livestock - scientists there created the first vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, for example. But the USDA also did its best to hide the breakdowns that plagued the research center beginning in the 1970s. Despite working with some of the nastiest pathogens on earth, the staff allowed air filters to leak, sewage to escape and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease to rage through the lab's herds. Carroll argues that things recently went from bad to worse when many of the jobs were privatized, leading to dangerous cost-cutting.

Carroll tries to turn these various problems into a new version of Richard Preston's 1995 bestseller "The Hot Zone." Preston's book - which chronicled an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in a colony of lab monkeys in Maryland - played on our fears of an exotic plague sweeping the United States, despite the fact that the virus never got out of the lab. Preston made you forget this annoying fact with his elegant, suspenseful prose. Carroll, not a masterful writer, can't distract readers from his tricks.

For example, as Carroll recounts the impact of 1991's Hurricane Bob on Plum Island, he ominously hints that the storm unleashed a doomsday scenario - one that never actually materialized. But Carroll's hype over the hurricane is positively tame compared to other claims he makes about Plum Island. He suggests that scientists there accidentally set loose Lyme disease, West Nile virus and a host of other new scourges in the United States. Carroll presents his evidence for these claims as luridly as he can manage, but it doesn't amount to much.

Take Lyme disease. Carroll offers shadowy hints that the Nazis experimented on Lyme disease as a weapon of germ warfare, and that after World War II, one German researcher had some dealings with the founders of Plum Island. Scientists in the labs there studied tick-borne diseases. Plum Island is not far from Lyme, Conn., where the disease was first recognized in the 1970s. Ergo, birds or deer on Plum Island may have carried Lyme-infected ticks there.

But there's plenty of evidence indicating that the bacteria that cause Lyme disease have been lurking quietly in American forests long before scientists came to Plum Island. In fact, evidence indicates that these bacteria probably evolved in North America and only later spread to Europe.

Carroll scoffs at the idea that Lyme could have such a history, but the fact is that many diseases have made this sort of crossover into humans. When we disturb ecosystems, we sometimes flush out parasites that make us their new home. Malaria became a major scourge thousands of years ago, when the first African farmers cleared forests and created puddles for parasite- bearing mosquitoes to breed in. More recently, HIV evolved from chimpanzee viruses that got into human bloodstreams in the mid-20th century, thanks to the accelerating slaughter of chimps for meat.

It's a shame that Carroll decided to aim for the hot zone. He suggests that bioterrorism is our gravest danger, but it pales in comparison to the many diseases that deforestation, globalization and climate change are bringing to our species. In an age of anthrax and SARS, we need places like Plum Island, and we need them to be safe and secure. "Lab 257" won't help that cause.

Copyright 2004, Carl Zimmer

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