August 5, 2007

British Outbreak Came From Lab

The outbreak of the devastating foot-and-mouth disease in Britain apparently came from a laboratory. The Pirbright facility in Surrey, three miles from the outbreak, is the only laboratory licensed to study the viruses that cause FAM, and the strain discovered in the cattle is not normally found in nature:

A biosecurity failure at a research laboratory has been pinpointed as the likeliest source of Britain's foot and mouth outbreak.

An inquiry by scientists is centring on fears that the virus escaped from the Pirbright laboratory site in Surrey, the only centre licensed to work with the foot and mouth virus. It is feared that the virus, carried on the wind, infected cattle grazing in a field three miles away.

A private pharmaceuticals company, Merial Animal Health, which has been developing a foot and mouth vaccine, shares the Pirbright site with the government-funded Institute for Animal Health, which holds 5,000 strains of the virus. Officials have not ruled out the possibility that such a release of the virus was deliberate. Both centres, however, pride themselves on their tight security record.

Last night, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed that the strain found on the infected farm was not one that would normally infect animals. A spokesman said the strain was similar to a virus known as 01 BFS67, which was isolated in the 1967 foot and mouth outbreak.

The good news is that the strain is less virulent than the 2001 strain that led to the slaughter of 10 million animals. The laboratory acknowledged that the strain in Guildford has been used for vaccine tests by a firm jointly owned by Merck and Sanofi-Aventis. Merial suspended operations on the vaccine now that the virus has escaped, but it's a bit like locking the proverbial barn door. In fact, the vaccine may be more important now than ever.

Britain has already felt the effects of the new outbreak. Livestock shows have been cancelled throughout the nation and transit of animals has been restricted. Europe has indicated that a months-long ban may get slapped on British exports on beef and lamb. That could cost the UK more than £70 million, which could just be the down payment on a large economic catastrophe. The last FAM outbreak cost the UK over £8.5 billion in 2001.

If this turns out to be caused by a breach in lab security, heads will roll. If it gets bad enough, the new Brown government may find itself in deep sheep dip indeed.


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Comments (4)

Posted by Linh_My | August 5, 2007 7:40 AM

Makes one sympathetic for Chinese Justice, where those responsible would wind up as replacement "people parts."

Posted by capitano | August 5, 2007 7:49 AM

"Round up the usual doctors!"

Posted by Ajfranke | August 5, 2007 9:06 AM

We're from the government, and we are here to help you.

Posted by Ray | August 5, 2007 8:08 PM

Here's a perfect example of the dangers inherent with the "Science to the rescue!" mindset that is infecting mankind. We believe that we are the masters of the universe yet the universe habitually reminds us just who is the true master really is.

I don't mean to portray myself as anti-science, but humans keep making the same mistakes over and over again when we try to project our mastery over nature. As the old commercial said: "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!"

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