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Inside Plum Island, America's Only Foreign Animal Disease Lab

In this episode of Symptomatic, Motherboard visits Plum Island.

In this episode of Symptomatic, Motherboard's series about the world of disease prevention and contamination, we take a peek at what's inside one of America's most secluded government laboratories: Plum Island.

Opened in 1954 on a small spot of land off the coast of New York, Plum Island is home to the only foreign animal disease research lab in the nation.

In short, it's where government scientists, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, try to stay one step ahead of harmful pathogens that could disrupt the nation's food supply.


They're the guys making sure that beef and poultry prices don't skyrocket due to a disease outbreak.

The island, which is roughly the size of New York City's Central Park, is the only place in the country authorized to conduct research using live samples of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious illness that still plagues hoofed livestock (like cows and goats) in many parts of the world. The US hasn't seen an outbreak of foot-and-mouth since 1929.

If the US were to have an outbreak of the disease or one similar, it could account for up to $50 billion in profit losses, according to researchers on the island.

While the research done on the island isn't confidential, visitors are strictly forbidden from traveling to Plum Island unless they receive security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security.

In this episode, Motherboard gained rare access to the laboratory and spoke to its workers about the innovative animal vaccines they develop. Without them, foot-and-mouth and other diseases could devastate the global food supply chain and wipe out hundreds of years of genetic material from livestock populations.