Two government agencies continue to bicker over how to protect US borders from agroterrorism and invasive species, which critics -- including a major congressional oversight committee -- say has left the country ill-equipped to handle either crisis. In 2003, antiterrorist legislation transferred control of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which monitors the borders for agricultural pests and conducts much of the country's research relating to linkurl:agroterrorism,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23091/ from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "I think it's just been disastrous," said linkurl:Peter Mason,;http://www.utmb.edu/pathology/profiles/?user=pwmason a researcher at University of Texas Medical Branch, who led the foot and mouth virus unit at linkurl:Plum Island;http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=19400000 (the site where most animal pathogen research takes place) between 2000 and 2002, of the years since DHS took over control of Plum Island. The agency pumped a lot of money into research, he said, "but fragmented the research...
congressional oversight committee -- say has left the country ill-equipped to handle either crisis. In 2003, antiterrorist legislation transferred control of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which monitors the borders for agricultural pests and conducts much of the country's research relating to linkurl:agroterrorism,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23091/ from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "I think it's just been disastrous," said linkurl:Peter Mason,;http://www.utmb.edu/pathology/profiles/?user=pwmason a researcher at University of Texas Medical Branch, who led the foot and mouth virus unit at linkurl:Plum Island;http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=19400000 (the site where most animal pathogen research takes place) between 2000 and 2002, of the years since DHS took over control of Plum Island. The agency pumped a lot of money into research, he said, "but fragmented the research structure even further." He added: "Quite frankly, I think DHS is a new agency and it?s not clear to me they have a clear understanding of animal agriculture." A December, 2005, linkurl:Government Accountability Office report;http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05214.pdf found that despite a presidential directive that the country must have the capacity to respond to an animal disease outbreak within 24 hours, such a rapid deployment would be impossible. That report also noted that although the DHS was supposed to be coordinating efforts between its own labs and USDA labs, such coordination never occurred, creating duplications in the research program and administrative confusions. "I was all in favor" of the DHS taking charge of Plum Island, said Roger Breeze, an independent contractor who advises the government on agroterrorism issues and advised the GAO on the report. "I thought it was just what the country needed." But because of the leadership problems, neither the DHS nor the USDA has articulated a vision for agroterrorism research, said Breeze, who directed Plum Island between 1987 and 1995. For example, he noted, one of the pathogens under study is vesicular stomatitis virus, which is often confused with FMD but is not a genuine threat. "Terrorists cannot threaten US agriculture with vesicular stomatitis -- we have outbreaks every decade or so and they are controlled almost invisibly," he wrote in an Email. "So USDA is wasting agroterrorism funds with any work on vesicular stomatitis." According to the USDA, however, research on vesicular stomatitis virus is needed, noting that outbreaks are relatively frequent and cause serious economic losses. "Host, viral, and insect factors influencing clinical presentation and mediating protective immune responses to VS [vesicular stomatitis] viruses are poorly understood," Cyril Gay, National Program Leader for Animal Health at the USDA, wrote in an Email. "This information is necessary to develop new strategies to assist in preventing VS epizootics." But not everyone is critical of how the DHS has handled agroterrorism research: linkurl:William Golde,;http://arsserv0.tamu.edu/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=2039 a microbiologist at Plum Island, said that initially, when DHS was charged with coming up with a research program, "nobody could really forsee the best way to go forward." But now, he said, "people on the island have created a very coordinated vision. The end result is actually a pretty good success story." Last fall, DHS awarded $5.6 million to the company linkurl:GenVec;http://www.genvec.com/go.cfm?do=Page.View&pid=140 to further develop an FMD vaccine developed on the island. "Without DHS and their financial capacity," said Golde, "that could never have happened. $6 million is like three or four years' budget for us." A statement prepared by the DHS press office in response to the specific criticisms leveled by Mason, Breeze, and the GAO report, countered that "DHS personnel have a great amount of dedicated experience not only as specialists in homeland security but also in veterinary medicine and agriculture." The statement also cited positive assessments of leadership made in the December, 2005, GAO report. "The report states 'our review shows a largely positive experience thus far in the coordination of DHS and USDA activities at Plum Island,'" the statement notes, adding that there is a high level of collaboration between the USDA and the DHS, including a board of directors on Plum Island composed of officials from all agencies involved. Since control of border inspections also switched from the USDA to the DHS, many stakeholders have linkurl:called for APHIS's return;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53195/ to the USDA for border inspection, arguing that the DHS does not have the resources to prioritize agriculture when it is concentrating on security issues. Another linkurl:Government Accountability Office review,;http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d06644.pdf presented in 2006, reported a sharp drop in the number of agricultural inspections that since the DHS took over border patrol. The report also noted long lags in fixing needed inspection equipment, morale problems among inspectors, a lack of coordination between the agencies involved. A congressional investigation and another external review, conducted by the linkurl:World Conservation Union (IUCN),;http://www.iucn.org/ published last fall, reached similar conclusions. "There were many situations in which inspectors weren?t even getting access to the material they needed to inspect," Jamie Reaser, a consultant to the IUCN who coauthored the report, told The Scientist. "The challenges are not largely scientific and technical -- they are managerial, quite honestly." Earlier this month, the DHS created a new position, called the Deputy Executive Director of Agricultural Oversight, to prioritize agricultural inspections, and sent memos to all border field offices reaffirming the importance of agricultural inspections. "There's been some really good developments," Lesley Palmer-Boxold, Federal State Director of Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told The Scientist. "We are cautiously optimistic," she added, "but we do intend to hold their feet to the fire and bring up the issues as we see them" if the agency's commitment does not bring swift improvement. Simply switching control of invasive species and agroterrorism from DHS to the USDA won't be easy: Indeed, APHIS and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) say that a reversal is impossible, and have created a linkurl:taskforce;http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/downloads/aphis_cbp_taskforce/FinalReport.pdf to increase collaboration between the two agencies, said a spokeswoman in the office of Richard Dunkle, Deputy Administrator for APHIS' Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program. A press representative at the Customs and Border Patrol, an arm of DHS, said that the agency's recent actions would improve agricultural inspections. In its statement, DHS did not reply to specific oversights mentioned in the 2006 GAO report, nor to the criticism that the agency does not have the resources to prioritize agriculture because it is focusing on security.
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