What if a potentially devastating disease or virus threatened Oklahoma’s crops, plants or animals? Such a frightening prospect would certainly trigger the coordinated efforts of multiple law enforcement, emergency management and public health agencies.
Oklahoma State University’s National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity more than likely also would be deeply in the mix.
“Crop and animal diseases can be transmitted different ways such as through the air or shipping, on seed or in feed,” said Kitty Cardwell, director of NIMFFAB. “It’s important to know whether that transmission was intentional and done with a malicious intent, an accident, or natural.”
That’s where a lot of coordination comes in.
NIMFFAB is actively trying to strengthen key relationships and widen lanes of information sharing with the FBI and other law enforcement and emergency management agencies across the state and throughout the region.
The institute recently took an important step toward accomplishing that objective with its participation in the Animal/Plant Health Joint Criminal-Epidemiological Investigations course.
It was the third time NIMFFAB has participated in the FBI-led course, but the first time it was hosted at OSU.
Beyond hosting the event, NIMFFAB presented results from a mock trial exercise designed to give faculty and students a taste of real-world experience.
“We brought the mock trial results and lessons learned forward to show the kinds of evidence that will have to be collected in the case of a biosecurity breach in order to take a perpetrator to trial,” said Cardwell. “The FBI, the co-organizers of the course, really liked it. I think we’ll probably end up incorporating these concepts into the course.”
In fact, collaboration was a crucial element in the mock trial exercise, said J. Keith Butler, an Oklahoma City-based attorney, who has been working with NIMFFAB graduate students sharpening their skills as potential expert witnesses.
“The premise we had is that it’s important in any kind of outbreak or issue that we might run into that you have collaboration among the investigators of law enforcement, the scientific community and then an education of the prosecutors after the fact to be able to bring a case to trial and successfully prosecute it if it’s intentional or criminal,” Butler said.
Plans are already underway to repeat the mock trial experience though not without a few tweaks. This first time around everyone involved was a scientist – NIMFFAB faculty filled out the prosecution and defense teams, while students served as expert witnesses and members of the jury.
On the next go-round, NIMFFAB will try to recruit jurors from other non-science departments on campus and eventually invite third-year law students from the University of Oklahoma to serve as the prosecution and defense teams.
“We’ll see what it looks like when the only experts are the expert witnesses and everybody else doesn’t know anything about it,” said Cardwell. “We think if the participants are not scientists, it will probably change the outcome of the trial.”
Overall, the course and the resulting training was important to the agricultural community, said FBI Special Agent Frank Alexander, Weapons of Mass Destruction coordinator, Oklahoma City Field Office and an instructor with the law enforcement agency.
“The threat of terrorism using plant and animal diseases requires effective joint interagency response capability,” Alexander said. “By engaging local, state and federal stakeholders, this course identifies and provides training in information sharing and joint investigation of suspicious threats and disease events by plant/animal health and law enforcement experts.”
Beyond representation from multiple OSU departments and the FBI, the course drew a wide range of agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry; USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management; Tulsa Police Department; Federal Emergency Management Agency; and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Nicole Schlaefli, an epidemiologist with the Tulsa City County Health Department who participated in the training course, said it was good to see how these processes work.
Though mainly a human disease investigator, Schlaefli said she sees a lot of diseases that start with plants and animals. Not to mention residents also become sickened through farm and ranch activities.
“They come to me and people are sick, but I don’t know that whole process of making the animals well and the plants well,” she said. “This has been a very eye-opening experience.”
Kim Edd Carter, director of the State of Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security, said although the concept of agriterrorism has been around for a long time, this course gives law enforcement and emergency management personnel a chance to update their skills and knowledge.
“One of the unique things about this training is agriculture is such a huge part of our economy in Oklahoma, but it is also something that’s very much a target for terrorist activity or things like this,” he said. “The real importance for these types of meetings is this is very much a complex, multidisciplinary thing, so bringing them together in this format of law enforcement, agriculture and even within agriculture – plants, animals, wildlife – to work together, learn from each other and how we can support each other to detect and prevent these things is very important to us.”
Interestingly, the FBI and NIMFFAB actually have maintained a close, years-long partnership, Alexander said, with the institute providing highly skilled and experienced experts in pathogenic microbes, which further enhances the capabilities and breadth of knowledge of the FBI Laboratory.
“The partnership provides a unique capability to collect evidence associated with terrorism which impacts the agricultural sector,” Alexander said. “This partnership has also fostered joint authorship on publications in a variety of scientific journals and textbooks.”
The course will be presented five more times this year at different locations nationwide and the institute will be involved in each of those training opportunities.
NIMFFAB is the only institute in the nation dedicated to microbial forensics in agriculture. The discipline of microbial forensics tries to answer questions such as how a disease infected a crop, how an animal disease was introduced into a state or how a food-borne pathogen ended up in a food product that was then distributed.