Despite the risk posed by highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, U.S. regulators and the meat industry have so far refused to consider immunizing the nation's livestock.
Many consider the decision a matter of economics, not science. Vaccinating animals against the disease would wipe out the United States' flourishing, $5-billion red meat export business because with the test currently on the market, antibodies produced by the vaccination can't be distinguished from those produced by the disease.
Without the ability to make that distinction, the U.S. would lose its foot-and-mouth-disease-free status and be subject to bans from importing countries.
"You'd have a much bigger loss than the animals themselves," said Richard D. Breitmeyer, California's state veterinarian. The U.S. would lose trade for years, he said. "It's a huge economic issue."
To be classified as foot-and-mouth-free by the world animal health organization, Office International Des Epizooties, a vaccinated country must be disease-free for two years. If vaccines have not been used, a country needs to be disease-free for only a year.
Industry leaders also argue that the repeated inoculations would be costly and guarantee immunity from only one particular strain of foot-and-mouth. Hog farmers, for instance, could immunize their pigs against the O type, which is devastating Britain and their animals, then could succumb to the A type from South America. "Which one do you choose?" asked Beth Lautner, vice president of science and technology at the Pork Producers Council.
"There is no need to vaccinate against a disease that no animals have," reads the latest statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on foot-and-mouth vaccines.
USDA sees vaccination as a desperate last resort and plans to use it only in the case of an outbreak.
Even then, the vaccination wouldn't spare the lives of those pigs, sheep or cows. It is meant only to give farmers and ranchers with a lot of animals more time to kill and dispose of the carcasses properly.
Yet some scientists believe that the possibility of this disease spreading to the U.S. is too great for regulators not to consider immunization or at least rush new tests and vaccines onto the market.
Researchers at USDA's Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Greenport, N.Y., have confirmed the effectiveness of a test developed by United Biomedical Inc. of Hauppauge, N.Y., that can identify foot-and-mouth disease in live animals and distinguish between vaccinated and infected livestock. The test is under licensing scrutiny by the USDA and could be out in the next couple of years.
Even more promising, ranchers say, are the synthetic vaccines United is developing. Unlike old-fashioned vaccines, these are not made from live virus that has been inactivated, and they pose no danger of surviving and accidentally causing outbreaks or mutating into new strains of virus.
"All we have to have is the sequence of the virus, which can be obtained for us extremely quickly in case of an outbreak," said United Biomedical microbiologist Alan Walfield.
These vaccines are going through the licensing process in Taiwan, which had a foot-and-mouth outbreak several years ago. U.S. trials are expected shortly.
Agricultural officials in Europe have refused to consider widespread vaccination, despite new cases of foot-and-mouth being discovered far from known outbreak sites.
In six weeks, foot-and-mouth, which is considered harmless to humans, has spread to 1,000 British farms, provoking the slaughter of more than a million animals, five times the number slaughtered over the last decade because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad-cow" disease.
President Bush and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman are not eager to see that widespread devastation repeated here.
Last week, Veneman announced her intention to put an additional $13.5 million into port inspection this year.
And Bush earmarked $393 million in his fiscal 2002 spending plan for pest and animal disease prevention work at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a 12% increase.
His plan also includes funding for experimental tests for mad-cow disease in live animals that will be ready for field evaluation in 2002.
Scientists and veterinarians say tests and vaccines need to be put on the fast track for approval. Although there hasn't been a case of foot-and-mouth diagnosed in the U.S. since 1929, the risk of the disease entering the country is greater than ever.
The biggest threat comes from U.S. ports, including the gateway ports in the West that face Asia, where foot-and-mouth is endemic, said Louisiana State University epidemiologist Martin Hugh-Jones. Moreover, the East Coast faces Europe, he said, where an Asian O type is in four countries.
With an unvaccinated population of 98 million cattle, 10 million sheep and 100 million pigs, many believe that the United States is just waiting for a foot-and-mouth outbreak to happen.