A January 31, 2007 press release from the University of Wisconsin, Madison announced that Thomas McKenna, director of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Plum Island, N.Y., where he has worked since 1995, has been chosen to head the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory which includes a self-contained Biological Safety Level 3 laboratory, where work with highly infectious organisms and other potential bioterrorism agents will be performed.
The release, disseminated as original writing in a local newspaper, quoted Daryl Buss, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine: “We are highly impressed with Tom's leadership skills, his scientific credentials and his ability to manage a resource that is vitally important to Wisconsin citizens.”
I attended a presentation by dean Buss and others at the November 30, 2006, Town of Dunn town hall meeting. A select group of purported university experts went to Dunn to explain why the University had offered a 160 acre parcel of land it owns in the township to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a site for a new Biological Safety Level 4 laboratory.
A Biological Safety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory studies the most deadly, most contagious diseases known. The new lab, wherever it is finally built, will be called the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NABF).
During the Dunn town hall meeting, dean Buss explained that the new facility would be a replacement for U.S. government owned Plum Island. He explained that Plum Island was an exemplary laboratory, but that it was deemed too old to fully renovate, so Homeland Security was trying to find a location to build a new laboratory.
During the Q&A, an elderly woman stood and asked the panel of university experts whether any of them had read the book she was holding, Lab 257. The experts looked around at each other, no, none of them was familiar with the book. Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, may have been prescient when he worried that if someone didn’t force the government to do something about Plum Island, that the author’s “brilliant work will have been wasted and we may be the victims, once again, of government inadvertence.”
There is something contradictory in dean Buss’s praise for Thomas McKenna’s leadership during his twelve years at Plum Island and the problems at Plum Island revealed by Michael C. Carroll’s Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.
There is something disturbing about dean Buss claiming that McKenna is impressive without, apparently, having familiarized himself with well researched criticisms of Plum Island’s history of germ research.
There is something nefarious in the fact that the university is trying to convince the Town of Dunn that it has nothing to worry about if Homeland Security builds a BSL-4 lab replacement for Plum Island in its back yard. Now, another expert will be able to say that he worked at Plum Island and the people of Dunn and nearby Madison should feel perfectly safe.
Understandably, getting information from Plum Island has proven to be as difficult as getting information from the UW. What has emerged from a large body of evidence, circumstantial and factual, is the likelihood that Plum Island is responsible for a number of disease outbreaks that have proven to be national public health and agricultural nightmares.
There is compelling evidence that Plum Island is responsible for the introduction into the United States of Lyme Disease, West Nile virus, Dutch duck plague, and the reintroduction hoof-and-mouth disease. Plum Island’s biocontainment mechanisms were allowed to deteriorate and remained non-functional for many years. Security was lax. Accidents were common. Plum Island’s apparent catastrophic failure to protect the public must be borne in part by Thomas McKenna.
Naming McKenna to lead a BSL-3 laboratory and likely become an advocate for the proposed BSL-4 laboratory – without fully understanding the history of Plum Island – is yet another violation of the public’s trust by the University of Wisconsin.