Plagues at the Gate

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1995

Plagues at the Gate

Beyond our shores lurk the Goths of contagion, killer viruses that could quickly wipe out this country's animal kindgom and send world markets into free fall. Out on Plum Island, the government is doing all it can to keep the hordes at bay.
By Charles Siebert

Deep inside a government laboratory on a marooned speck of land two miles off the coast of Long Island, Dr. Roger G. Breeze is making his way down the long corridors of Building 101. Dressed in a white lab suit with matching white sneakers, he has come to check on a patient. According to one of the lab attendants, the prognosis isn't good. "Not going to see tomorrow," he reports. "I'll have the night shift fire up the incinerator." Breeze nods soberly and continues on through the dank passageways of Zone 4, the most contaminated area within the lab. Along the way, he opens a heavy air-lock door and then latches it securely behind him. As he burrows in toward the center of the building, the air pressure steadily decreases, so that any stray pathogens will flow inward and up through a large particulate filter.

Breeze pauses at the entrance to Room 1136 and inspects the chart hanging on the cement wall outside. There's no name listed for the patient--only the letters ASF. "It causes an acute hemorrhagic fever," explains Breeze in his gravelly Glasgow brogue. "Highly lethal."

Stepping up to the air-lock door, Breeze lifts a rubber flap away from a small, square peephole and tells me to look inside. I see only red at first--red cement walls, red ceiling, and red floor, with a metal drain at the center of the room. Then, panning slowly to the right, my eyes focus at last on the patient: an enormous pig lying in the far corner, breathing heavily, deep in the throes of African swine fever. A tick-borne disease that can also be spread via contaminated pork, ASF has devastated the swine population in much of Africa and in recent years has caused major problems in Portugal and Spain. There is no known treatment or vaccine, although the science being conducted inside Building 101 may one day lead to one.

Over the night, Breeze says, the pig's stomach and lungs will become engorged with blood, as its liver, gall bladder, spleen, and other organs continue to swell. "I'm not sure which version of the virus we gave this animal," he says as he leads me down the corridor for a look at the necropsy room, where the pig will be dissected and incinerated. "It was either the natural virus or one we genetically altered in the lab. Either way, it doesn't look good for that guy."

One hears much these days about the threat of newly emerging killer viruses for which we've developed no immunological response: illnesses such as Muerto Canyon hantavirus, which claimed 27 lives in the American Southwest in the summer of 1993. Or Ebola, a particularly gruesome hemorrhagic-fever virus that is the subject of Richard Preston's best-selling book, The Hot Zone. But there are also many other potentially calamitous diseases that, though nonthreatening to humans, could wipe out much of our nation's poultry and livestock, jeopardizing the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, toppling world markets, and sending the price of the food we eat skyrocketing. This long, expanding list of foreign animal diseases includes African swine fever, African horse sickness, Exotic Newcastle disease, avian influenza, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Rift Valley fever, and perhaps the best known and most feared of all animal afflictions, foot-and-mouth disease.

The consequences of a major outbreak of any one of these diseases could be staggering. In the 1970s, African swine fever broke out in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, the closest it has ever come to American shores. In the end, hundreds of thousands of pigs in these countries had to be destroyed to contain the scourge. In 1983, when a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza struck in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, government officials moved in and slaughtered every chicken within a 90-mile radius--more than 17 million birds, all told.

It is the daunting task of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to prevent these foreign pestilences from establishing a beachhead on American soil. The USDA fights its viral war on numerous fronts, including interdiction efforts at major seaports, aggressive eradication programs around the world, and the epidemiological equivalent of a SWAT team that swiftly responds to every reported outbreak across the nation. In addition, inspection officers at the country's three designated points of entry for animal air traffic--New York's JFK, Honolulu International, and Miami International--work around the clock monitoring the traffic of beasts. The USDA also has an enormous quarantine complex in Newburgh, New York, which functions as the Ellis Island of animal immigration and is filled, at this very moment, with everything from parakeets to emus to wildebeests, all waiting for final approval to join the rest of America's animal kingdom. For the USDA, that innocuous-sounding line on your customs form about whether you've been on a farm lately is gravely serious business. Animal viruses, like human ones, can be arbitrary, versatile, and extremely cunning infiltrators. The 1983 avian influenza epidemic in Lancaster seems to have resulted from the droppings of infected waterfowl that were migrating from Canada--droppings that just happened to land in a poultry farmer's feed trough. In 1929 the U.S. cattle industry suffered a terrible outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that was later traced back to a few contaminated meat scraps buried in the trash hold of a ship that had docked at the port of Long Beach, California.

Today, with the steady expansion of international air travel and global trade agreements, it's become nearly impossible to police the myriad highways and flyways of disease. More than two and a half million foreign animals are imported into the United States each year. Along with the usual comings and goings of farm animals and racehorses, there is a bewildering menagerie of exotic species brought in for zoos, circuses, game farms, and pet shops. These days the chances are pretty good that on any given international flight there's an alpaca or a dik-dik riding alongside your suitcases. It's only a matter of time in a world of rapidly crisscrossing flights before the emu egg smashed by a restless rhino infects the macaw that slips through inspection.

And when it does, the USDA's most effective counterattack will most likely come from the labyrinthine compound where Breeze and I stood watching the dying pig. Perhaps the least known fortification in the USDA's defense arsenal, this ultrasecure biocontainment facility run by the Agricultural Research Service is, in essence, the Centers for Disease Control for domesticated beasts. It is here on this isolated spit off the northeastern tip of Long Island that cultures from the latest zoological epidemics are diagnosed, that animals are challenged with exotic diseases, and that viruses are genetically reconfigured to develop new vaccines that may save millions of dollars in livestock. Officially known as the U.S. Laboratories for Foreign Animal Disease Research and Diagnosis, most people who work here simply call it Plum Island.

About three miles long and a mile across, Plum Island seems a preposterously tiny stronghold. On a map, it usually appears--if it appears at all--as a shaded-in, townless blotch marked "Restricted to Public." Until just two years ago the press and even family members of the island's 170 employees were not allowed to cross over on the three government ferries that connect it to Long Island and Connecticut.

The island is said to have been named by Dutch settlers who were taken with the beach plum trees growing all along the shore. Now, however, the place mostly grows viruses. Were you to happen upon it in a boat, drawn perhaps by the pristine beaches, you would be quickly apprehended and made to sign an affidavit swearing to obey a long and byzantine list of quarantine measures. The weird gothic feel of the island may have been captured best in the film The Silence of the Lambs. When Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter asks Jodie Foster's character what he would get for helping the FBI solve a grisly serial murder case, she promises him an annual outing to Plum Island, to stroll the beach under the watchful gaze of a SWAT team.

There is virtually no wildlife on Plum Island, and the USDA likes it that way. Deer will sometimes swim over from the mainland, only to be shot by government marksmen to preempt any possibility that they might swim back with some unwelcome pathogen. At the end of every day, employees strip out of their scrubs and disinfect themselves in the showers before boarding the evening ferry back to the real world.

Before the USDA took over in 1954, the U.S. Army ran Plum Island, using it as a fortress against a far more plodding and predictable foe. During the Spanish-American War, the army mounted huge cannons along the island's eastern shore to guard Long Island Sound against enemy ships, and for half a century Plum Island remained the home of the Fort Terry artillery base. For a time in the early 1950s, the army converted one of the buildings into a lab to conduct biological-weapons research. According to recently declassified documents dating from 1951, army scientists on Plum Island briefly investigated ways in which foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever could be used to wipe out the livestock of the Soviet Union and thus cripple its economy. As late as 1990, Plum Island scientists were working with the army to research defenses against Rift Valley fever and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis, should these agents ever be employed against U.S. armed forces.

Because of its somewhat Strangelovean past, a cloak-and-dagger aura has hung over Plum Island for decades. Residents along the north shore of Long Island, in towns like Orient and Greenport and Shelter Island Heights, have naturally been antsy about living so close to a disease hatchery. What, some locals wondered, was to stop an alien microbe from wafting over on a sea breeze? And what would happen in the event of a nor'easter storm or--God forbid--a full-scale hurricane?

Local concerns were heightened in 1978, when Plum Island experienced an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among lab animals held in outdoor pens. Farmers and public health officials on Long Island were understandably alarmed: While the disease doesn't affect people, it is one of the most contagious viruses known, and given the daily transcontinental shipments of livestock throughout the United States, a small incident could easily set off a nationwide epidemic. The Plum Island outbreak was quickly contained, although the psychological effects of the incident reverberate still. Last November, when I phoned the USDA offices in Washington, D.C., about gaining access to Plum Island, my request was passed along through the proper channels, and a week later I received a call from Roger Breeze, the facility's director. A career veterinarian, he had been the chairman of Washington State University's department of veterinary microbiology and pathology before coming on board at Plum Island nearly eight years ago. To my surprise, Breeze regaled me with stories about the work that goes on there and seemed eager to show me his ocean-bound domain, which he referred to as "a little city unto itself." The island has its own fire station and hospital, a cafeteria, power and sewage plants, shuttle buses, and a marine repair shop--not to mention elaborate warrens of animal holding pens, research labs, necropsy rooms, autoclaves, and carcass incinerators.

In fact, it was Roger Breeze who was responsible for getting press restrictions lifted in 1993 as part of an effort to dispel some of the secrecy and foreboding surrounding the place. But Breeze's open-door policy notwithstanding, I soon discovered that it's no easy task to actually meet with the man. He informed me that he was flying to Brazil the next morning for a conference on foot-and-mouth disease. After that, he would go directly to Siberia to participate in a two-week fact-finding mission on animal afflictions, and he had several more international trips on the horizon. "Let's see," he finally offered with a sigh. "I might have a day free around the Christmas holidays."

We met early one morning four days after Christmas at the weather-beaten docks in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Breeze lives with his wife in Cheshire and commutes to work each day along with a handful of other scientists and island personnel on the USDA ferry. It's a bracing ten-mile run across some of the roughest water in Long Island Sound. "It can get dicey here in a storm," Breeze said, as we looked out from the ship's pilothouse on a thankfully mild winter morning, the vague outlines of Plum Island shimmering in the distance. "We get pitched seas. People doubled over, turning green. Sometimes the ferry just has to turn back." In the late 1950s, he said, a hurricane kept employees stranded on Plum Island for three days. And in the midseventies, when Long Island Sound froze solid for nearly a week, workers had to be flown in by helicopter until an icebreaker could be brought in to clear a path. "Plum Island," said Breeze, "is not the place to work if you like predictable commutes."

Roger Breeze is not the typical pallid lab dweeb you might expect as the director of a government research facility. A burly, avuncular man of 48 in a tweed sport coat and corduroys, he is a beguiling mix of Oxford professor and old salt. The son of small-time farmers in northern England, he was a country vet and university professor before immigrating to the United States in 1977, living a life right out of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. In fact, he once taught Herriot's son at the veterinary school in Glasgow. "I had some crazy nights," he said, reminiscing about his veterinarian days. "Once I had just finished pulling a newborn pig that was stuck in its mother's womb when I get another call about a sick dog. I go right over, knock on the door, and a bunch of Hell's Angels answer. They're all looking at me kind of funny, but I'm too worn out to care. I examine the dog and see right away that it's too far gone with distemper. So I take the dog out back and shoot it. The bikers pay me my fee, but they're still staring at me wide-eyed, like I'm some kind of lunatic. It's not until I'm back in my car looking at myself in the rearview mirror that I see that my face and hair are all blotched and matted with pig placenta. I looked like the psycho vet from hell."

As we approached the USDA docks, the island appeared to be little more than a humpbacked snare of scrub against the bleak winter sky. A row of white school buses was parked beside the docks. An American flag fluttered from a pole, and there was a slightly dilapidated wooden sign with the words PLUM ISLAND ANIMAL DISEASE CENTER faded from the salt air. Beyond the boat slip, a large fog bell covered with verdigris was mounted beside an abandoned guardhouse--vestiges, I surmised, of the days when the army ran the place.

We disembarked, boarded one of the school buses, and drove a half-mile down a winding road lined with gnarled trees until we came to the main laboratory complex. A few steps inside the shiny front lobby was the admissions desk, where I signed a visitor's affidavit swearing to subject myself to a scrupulous seven-day quarantine upon my return to the mainland. Among other things, I was to avoid animal farms, sale barns, stockyards, packing houses, circus menageries, fairs, and other animal laboratories. I vowed to keep away from cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, domestic fowl, guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, and deer, as well as parrots and parakeets. On this last point, it occurred to me that if my dog had not eaten my pet budgie a few months earlier, I wouldn't have been permitted to go home for a week.

Breeze led me up to his second-floor office, where, surrounded by giant world maps and blown-up photographs of animal viruses looming on the walls, he seemed suddenly transformed, the country vet now looking more like a general hunkered in his war room. On another wall was a large lithograph depicting hundreds of medieval warriors madly charging a steep and well-defended rampart. It seemed an apt image for the USDA's efforts here on Plum Island-- a vulnerable citadel besieged by enemy hordes. "Don't know who they are," Breeze mumbled when I asked about the lithograph. "Goths or something."

As it happened, Breeze was on his way out as director of Plum Island. Later in the spring, he was planning to take a new post at the USDA's offices in Athens, Georgia. (His successor, Harley Moon, is the former director for the National Animal Disease Center, Plum Island's sister facility in Ames, Iowa.) "I've done all I wanted to do here," Breeze said, looking fondly out the window at the island civilization he has presided over for the better part of a decade. He paused for a moment and smiled. "What really gets to me," he said, "is that on the one hand we've got this sophisticated science going on here, and on the other, we've got beagles with very tired noses sniffing people's bags at airports and guys dropping millions of flies from airplanes down in Central America."

"Guys doing what?" I asked.

"One of our international operations," Breeze explained, "is trying to eliminate something called the screwworm larva. They bore in and feed on live flesh. They'll eat your face off if you let them go long enough. And they're especially devastating to livestock, because the animal can't scratch them off. They cause these horrible, horrible wounds that just keep growing. We've eliminated screwworm here in the U.S., but now we're trying to push them completely out of North America."

The USDA, it turns out, spends $34 million per year to run a plant in southern Mexico that bombards male screwworm flies with gamma rays to sterilize them. Each spring, trays filled with millions of these flies are dropped from planes over Central America; when the screwworm flies try to mate, they cannot reproduce.

"People have no idea what's out there," he said as he ran his eyes over the rogue's gallery of viruses decorating his wall. "It's all so goddamn crazy. There's something called mad cow's disease in England that we're keeping a close eye on. We've got ostriches from Namibia that could be carrying ticks with Congo Crimean hemorrhagic fever. We've got Vietnamese potbellied pigs, alpacas and llamas, you name it. We've got Russian immigrants trying to smuggle in crates of their pigeons or hide them under their coats. We had one multimillionaire a few years back who had 28 elephants flown to his own private airstrip, just smuggled them right in under our noses. God knows what he wanted them for. Trying to keep pace with all of this, it's like we're running around sticking fingers in a leaky dike."

I'd gotten a good sense of what Breeze was talking about a few weeks earlier, when I visited the USDA's animal import center in Newburgh, New York, likely the largest animal holding facility in the world. After stripping down and showering, I was outfitted with standard-issue black rubber boots and gray overalls and then led through the center's 15 enormous barns, which were filled with, among other things, pigs from England, Thoroughbreds from Germany, racing pigeons from Holland, and a herd of alpacas fresh from New Zealand, their heads all aswivel in purse-lipped, wide-eyed stares. Taped to the outside of some of the special quarantine bird units, known as "isolettes," were notes from owners that detailed their pets' daily habits and preferences. "Please," one note implored, "take good care of my darling Anna Gray." It was like an ever-changing postmodern ark, the animals riding out a purgatory en route to their final destinations in the everyday world.

Later that morning we hopped into a USDA van and, with Breeze serving as both narrator and chauffeur, drove down the island's back roads. He showed me the power station and the sewage decontamination plant. He led me past the generators and emergency backup generators, through the machine shops and boiler rooms. The whole complex had the humming and vaguely eerie self-sufficiency of those high-tech villain's lairs in James Bond movies.

Toward the center of the island, we came upon the old Fort Terry military base. It's very much a ghost town now, with a brick hospital, a jail, an old mess hall, two long brick barracks, and a small white chapel set on a hill. The only functioning part of this little outpost is a fire station, but it's almost never used. On Plum Island, Breeze said, most fires are contained and then left to burn, since conventional firefighting tactics--ventilating, watering, and so forth--have a tendency to spread viruses around.

Breeze pulled the van to a stop directly across from Building 257, the original biocontainment lab where army scientists did their germ warfare research. The building looked like an old foundry, with its three-foot-thick walls of reinforced concrete and its metal livestock chutes angling in from all sides. Today, it's completely unused and sealed off, biohazard symbols affixed to the rusting metal doors. Deep in the inner recesses of the basement are freezers full of frozen viruses. "We'll be tearing the building down in the spring," Breeze said. "Before we do, we'll fill the place with formaldehyde gas and kill everything in it."

We continued on to a lovely stretch of beach that Hannibal Lecter indeed might have relished had he ever made it here. It's used only once a year, when Plum Island holds its Fourth of July picnic, traditionally the only day when employees' families are allowed on the premises. But even on holidays, Breeze said, everyone has to observe the usual security procedures. It struck me as an offbeat outing, a beach day in biocontainment.

"I used to come down here with my young recruits before we built our new labs," Breeze said. "I'd draw viruses in the sand, and then we'd plan our research strategies."

Before Breeze's arrival at Plum in 1987, there was growing concern in Washington about the rising cost of running an offshore facility with all the logistical nightmares it entails. Breeze, however, felt the heightened security of an island location was well worth the expense. "All major animal disease labs around the world have had one or more accidents in which biocontainment was breached," he said. "The advantage of an offshore site is that any accidentally released virus would disperse over the ocean."

On the eastern tip of Plum Island are the old gun emplacements from the Spanish-American War. Each looks like an elevated semicircular stage, with a foundation of cracked cement where the gun was once bolted down. After taking over the island in 1954, the USDA fenced off the emplacements and used them as holding pens for lab animals. In fact, the Plum Island cattle that caught foot-and-mouth disease in the 1978 outbreak were held in pens just like these. "That's another advantage of this setting," Breeze said. "Internationally, the foot-and-mouth incident here was considered an intralaboratory infection not involving the continental U.S., so there were no restrictions or embargoes placed on U.S. animals or animal products overseas."

And yet, after all these years, the specter of foot-and-mouth disease still hovers over Plum Island, the central cautionary tale that informs so much of the USDA's efforts here. Of all the diseases that Plum Island scientists work with, it is FMD that historically has wreaked the most havoc. Between 1870 and 1929, there were nine major outbreaks in the United States. Millions of cattle had to be slaughtered, countless ranchers' loans were foreclosed, and financial losses were registered in the billions of dollars.

The foot-and-mouth disease virus attacks cloven-hoofed animals, primarily cattle and swine. Some early signs of the disease are fever, dullness, a lack of appetite, and suppressed milk production. A thick, ropy saliva forms about the muzzle. After a few days, blisters begin to appear throughout the mouth, hooves, and teats. The blisters coalesce into larger ones that eventually rupture, leaving bleeding ulcers that make it too painful for the animals to eat. Though FMD does not immediately kill livestock, it is so contagious that entire herds must be destroyed upon first contact to prevent a small outbreak from escalating into a major epidemic.

In many ways, the USDA labs on Plum Island owe their existence to FMD and to a particularly destructive outbreak that occurred just south of the border in 1946. The disease first appeared in the area of Rancho Macombo, in Mexico's Veracruz State, and quickly spread throughout the country. The USDA joined Mexican authorities in one of the most ambitious disease-eradication campaigns ever mounted. Thousands of American veterinarians and field workers streamed across the border to help, along with fleets of transport vehicles and tons of medical supplies. A huge swath of central Mexico was cordoned off for quarantine. More than a million cows and hogs were herded into trenches, shot, covered in disinfectant, and buried. Ranchers and eradication workers alike had to burn their clothing and walk through trays of powdered disinfectant.

The Mexican epidemic, combined with a smaller outbreak of FMD in western Canada in 1952, created a new sense of urgency. At that time, there were no facilities in North America that enabled pathologists to work securely with FMD or other animal viruses. Samples from the Mexican and Canadian outbreaks had to be shipped all the way to Great Britain for a definitive diagnosis, a delay that allowed the disease to establish itself over a much wider area. And so, by an act of Congress, the USDA labs on Plum Island were established.

Although there hasn't been an FMD outbreak close to U.S. borders since 1954, the disease is still widespread in Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe and South America. Certainly the USDA is taking no chances. In fact, it is principally due to fear about a possible FMD outbreak that the U.S. government now forbids the importation of beef from nearly every nation on earth. As an additional plug in the dike, the USDA has set up an enormous quarantine facility on Florida's Fleming Key specifically to house incoming animals susceptible to FMD. It may all seem a bit extreme, but the stakes couldn't be higher: If an outbreak of FMD were to occur on American soil today, it would ultimately cost the U.S. economy $12 billion over the next 15 years.

Toward the end of the day, we picked up our lab whites at the front desk of Building 101 and changed in a yellow-tiled locker room. Along with my street clothes, I had to leave behind my tape recorder, pen, and notepad--anything on which a virus might hitch a ride back to the mainland. Breeze said he'd re-equip me once we got inside.

Building 101, which was completed back in 1956, has all the look and feel of a World War II-vintage battleship. Breeze said that only he and a select group of scientists and animal handlers who've received the necessary vaccinations can work in certain wings of the building. As otherworldly as foreign animal disease research has become--with scientists reshaping the genetic structures of viruses--it still needs to be brought to bear on this world's animals, a fact not lost upon an old country vet like Breeze.

"I once had to take some FMD blood samples from some infected pigs for this big meeting down in Washington," Breeze recalled. "The pigs were being held in separate rooms, which meant I'd have to shower and change into a new set of clothes with each pig. So to save time, I just decided to do it naked. There I was, going from room to room, crawling on my hands and knees with the squealing pigs, buck naked on the cold cement floor. Great fun."

Breeze then took me to the X-ray crystallography room, an anomalous bit of futurism within such a creaky old vessel. Bent over a table was Dr. Fred Brown, one of the world's leading virologists, whom Breeze had brought over from England to work on FMD research. Using a microscope, Brown showed me one of the crystals of FMD virus that he was x-raying to reveal its molecular structure. There, in a pretty, three-dimensional, amber prism was the cause of immeasurable animal suffering and untold billions of dollars of destruction. "It's one of the smallest viruses we know," Brown said. "You need 60,000 virus particles lined up end to end to cross the head of a pin."

We passed through the long rows of labs, where researchers were working on such projects as mapping the genetic structure of African swine fever and perfecting a safe, effective vaccine for African horse sickness. A genetically altered FMD vaccine recently developed on Plum Island may one day eliminate the need for costly and dangerous vaccine-manufacturing plants where the live FMD virus is cultured. "With this new vaccine," Breeze told me, "we're essentially injecting a packet of genetic information into the animal, and then it produces its own vaccine. The animal becomes its own vaccine plant."

Breeze ambled down the long corridors, slapping various researchers and animal handlers on the back and calling out to the head scientists, "We make any great discoveries today? Any discoveries?"

Finally, he glanced at his watch and said we should be returning to the locker room to catch the last ferry back to Connecticut. I inquired about the tricky matter of how I was to get my written notes out of biocontainment. The good mayor of Plum Island didn't hesitate; he grabbed my notes, walked back into one of the labs, and faxed the pages up to the safety of his office. After showering off all microbial stowaways, we got back into our street clothes and dashed upstairs to retrieve my notes from Breeze's fax machine just in time to meet the ferry.

It was dark when we arrived back at the Old Saybrook docks. The scientists and maintenance workers moving briskly to their cars looked like any other group of commuters heading home from a normal day at the office. For a moment it was possible to forget what a strange, inverted world Plum Island is, a place where the beaches are used as viral blackboards, exotic diseases sleep in subterranean freezers, and marksmen shoot all the free-roaming deer. It is a piece of real estate excerpted from the usual workings of daily life so that daily life might carry on as usual everywhere else: a place quite out of this world.

Charles Siebert, a frequent contributor to Outside, is currently at work on a book titled Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, to be published by Simon & Schuster.

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Policing the Flyways of Disease

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