PLUM ISLAND -- About 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are documented each year, making it the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the CDC suspects Lyme disease is greatly under-reported, and that the actual number of people diagnosed each year is 10 times that amount. And though science shows Lyme disease has been around for thousands of years, some believe it was actually manufactured at a facility not too far from the Capital Region.
The island sits off the northern fork of Long Island and is only a few miles off shore from Old Lyme, Connecticut. Many have seen it from a distance, but only a few have gotten close enough to know what really goes on inside the Animal Disease Research Center on Plum Island. NEWS10 ABC given the opportunity to go inside the facility, escorted onto the island by Homeland Security.
“We don't work with human pathogens, we work with animal pathogens that are transmitted from animal livestock to livestock,” said Doctor Larry Barrett, the center’s director.
He says the center's mission is, and always has been, to protect the nation's livestock from foot and mouth disease, African swine fever and other diseases that only infect animals.
But many are still interested in Plum Island's mysterious past and the alleged classified secrets that could affect those living close to it.
Stories of a hybrid creature named the Montauk Monster or theories that Nazi scientists worked on germ warfare, creating Lyme disease, which then accidentally got out, are common in the area. Doctor Luis Rodriguez, one of the lead researchers on Plum Island, says it is all conspiracy -- and none of it true.
“I think the biggest misconception is that we work on secrets and that our research is secret,” he said.
Plum island scientist Doctor Bruce Harper gave a tour explaining his team's work with cells, bacteria, and viruses.
“There's not a whole lot of difference in what goes on here than what goes on on the other side of that wall,” he said.
The bio safety level two laboratory is the only lab NEWS10 ABC crews were allowed inside. Scientists there work on making antibodies and vaccine agents which are then tested on animals in an
A tour of that lab would have required a strip down and shower according to Dr. Harper, but not because of the potential harm to our crew, but to our nation's agricultural industry.
“It’s a $1.5 trillion industry for this country, you have the cheapest food in the world and what this lab does is help make sure those diseases stay out of the country,” added Dr. Barrett.
The scientists confirm that Lyme disease was never worked on at the island and that the USDA never worked on germ warfare.
The high level of security on the island is not to keep people from getting in necessarily, but more so for keeping potentially disastrous and deadly materials from getting out.
On Thursday morning, tune in to NEWS10 ABC at 6:30 a.m. to see our in-depth report on chronic Lyme disease -- the controversy over treatment, insurance coverage and the politics of it all.