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Row rumbles on over Brown's FMD diagnostic kit

FORDYCE MAXWELL
RURAL AFFAIRS EDITOR

THREE years on from the world’s biggest foot-and-mouth outbreak, there is still no reliable rapid on-farm diagnostic test.

Work continues at the Institute of Animal Health’s Pirbright centre in Surrey to produce such a kit and the Scottish Executive has promised to use it, if and when it proves effective.

But they resist claims from supporters of Professor Fred Brown that his Smart Cycler test could have avoided the slaughter of an estimated six to ten million millions of animals in the UK in 2001 or that it could be used now. Prof Brown, a former director of Pirbright,

died last month, only days after the 20 February third anniversary of the outbreak. Brown’s supporters claim that the diagnostic kit he advocated then is used widely in other parts of the world, but that there is no mention of its possible use in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ foot-and-mouth contingency plan.

Anne Lambourn, a Brown supporter and anti-slaughter as a way of controlling any future outbreak, told The Scotsman: "Defra seem entrenched in a medieval attitude to disease control and incapable of taking advantage of new technologies."

She added: "It is salutary to reflect that the outbreak was a largely self-generated disaster, due in large part to the refusal to embrace modern technology that would have obviated the need for mass slaughter."

Those most closely involved with the epidemic in Scotland, including Jim Walker, then president of NFU Scotland, the state veterinary service and Executive ministers, have maintained just as consistently that slaughtering animals on infected farms as fast as possible, and others in the "contiguous cull" area, was essential to stop the disease spreading.

The several inquiries held into the outbreak largely supported that, and confirmed that from start to finish Scotland had handled the disaster effectively.

Allan Wilson, deputy minister for environment and rural development, told The Scotsman: "Novel diagnostic tests will be used in any future outbreak of FMD - provided they are internationally validated."

That is the snag. Pirbright scientists take a different view of Brown’s claims that his Smart Cycler was "a beautiful piece of kit, simple and not costly". Three Pirbright scientists carried out an evaluation of the Cycler. Their findings in the Veterinary Record in summer 2002 were that it could not detect weakly positive samples and that further work was needed before it could be used for diagnosis in the field.

Essentially, that is still the position. Dr Donald King of Pirbright said this week: " We are working on a range of tests, but we still have to define a role for a machine that can cost £30,000 to £60,000 and cannot be moved round farms because of restrictions during an outbreak."

But Mary Critchley, a fervent anti-slaughter campaigner, said on her warmell.com website: "Both vaccination and the rapid diagnosis kit were available at the start of the 2001 epidemic. All that was lacking - now as then - was the political will."