Recommendation 3.5: USDA should create an agency for control and prevention of plant disease. This agency should have the capabilities necessary to deal effectively with biothreats.
For animal disease, USDA operates several laboratories—Plum Island and Ames among them—that perform diagnoses, carry out research, and provide training for veterinarians. CDC is the central agency for the control and prevention of communicable human disease, but no center currently exists to serve the same function for plant disease. Such a center is desperately needed.2 Departments of plant pathology at various state universities, APHIS, and a wide variety of other agencies, all of which often depend on outside experts, currently deal with new and unusual plant pathogens as best they can.
A major research, development, and training center is called for that would address fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases of plants. Programs would focus on genomics and proteomics, databasing and informatics, forensics, pathogenesis, host-parasite interactions, diagnostics, sensors, food safety, analytical methods, epidemiology, modeling of disease outbreaks, intervention, and management. Other efforts could include outreach, technology transfer, collections of pathogens, and epidemiological intelligence and response. Close linkages could be established with other federal and state agencies, as well as with academic institutions, international agencies with responsibilities for surveillance of plant diseases and bioterrorism, and industrial, extension, and professional organizations. These collaborators could, among other functions, provide advice on containment and control procedures.
We can never create a perfect system to safeguard against terrorist use of a biological agent. But conscientious preparation—to the greatest extent that budgets and available methods allow—will reduce anxiety and greatly mitigate the consequences of an actual attack. Part of that preparation should involve research and development on needed tools and approaches. These include modeling techniques, bioforensics, methods for defining threats, specific and broad-spectrum antibiotic and novel antiviral agents, and means for rapid vaccine fielding. Once an attack has occurred, a better prepared and reinforced health and agriculture response system will be needed, as will be a reliable and consistent communications plan. For those exposed, protocols for treatment and decontamination must be available. And for animal and plant exposures, an effective disposal and decontamination plan must be in place.
A similar recommendation was made in February 2002 by the American Phytopathological Society. The white paper “American Phytopathological Society: The First Line of Defense—Biosecurity Issues Affecting Agricultural Crops and Communities: Genomics, Biotechnology, and Infrastructure” is available for review at <http://www.apsnet.org/media/ps/BiosecurityWhitepaper2-02.pdf>.