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Letter to Dr James Irvine at Land Care and copied to April 12 2006

The rapid PCR tests that USDA invented for FMD, classical swine fever, avian influenza, Newcastle disease and others in 2000-2001 are single tests - they were designed to test one animal sample for one pathogen at a time. Almost unbelievably, five years later, these single tests are not yet formally recognized as the benchmarks for disease diagnosis by veterinary regulatory authorities in North America, Europe and the International Office of Epizootics. And the significance of the fact that the foot and mouth and classical swine fever tests will find infected animals 2 to 3 days before they show clinical signs of disease seems to have escaped most animal disease control agencies.

I recently proposed in this forum that Scotland should invest in 9 or 10 RAPID PCR machines for avian influenza and other foreign animal and poultry disease detection at regional labs. This machine can test over 30 samples at a time for the same disease or for several diseases using the single PCR tests. It was not my intention to suggest that this should be the only national investment to drive detection and diagnosis closer to the point of need on the farm: the March of Technology is inexorable and we are about to see waves of new devices and test technologies come onto the commercial market (although not the market for critical diagnosis of the world's most dangerous livestock diseases, which is satisfied with the technology of our grandfathers).

Specifically, I must draw attention to the imminent availability (2006) of a test cassette format (the machine has been on the market for some time) that will allow a sample from a single animal to be tested by real time PCR for up to 12 disease pathogens simultaneously in about 20 minutes (this is known as multiplex testing). This machine is about the size of a small loaf of bread and operates when slung over the shoulder or in a moving vehicle. It is ideally suited for investigative use on farm or at the site of the dead swan. The PCR tests, cassette format and device are state of the art for the U.S. military on land, sea or air, or underwater. Later this year, a further investment of about 300,000 pounds would provide this mobile detection capability via staff of the 9 veterinary investigation labs for on-farm diagnosis throughout Scotland. One might choose a standard test cassette that detects the 12 most important foreign livestock and poultry diseases threatening the UK or species-specific cassettes that detect the 12 most important infections, foreign and domestic, of swine, poultry, etc.

What's alarming about failure to deploy rapid PCR tests even to regional diagnostic labs since 2001 is that technology has moved on significantly while nothing was being done. The means to detect on the farm has got even better since 2001 - it did not disappear just because responsible officials had their heads in the sand hoping it would go away. We cannot afford to find ourselves in 2012 still waiting for officialdom to formally approve the technology I just described above. Just remember when you hear scientific experts telling you that it is not possible to detect avian influenza with real time PCR in the regional Scottish diagnostic labs today that the next generation of on farm test capability is now coming to market (you will be able to buy it to detect the most dangerous viral and bacterial biological weapons threats to people in Autumn 2006, including avian influenza H5N1) and the generation beyond that is emerging from research laboratories.

Finally, let me apologize to the staff of the 8 SAC regional veterinary diagnostic centers. I have been gone from Scotland almost 30 years and didn't know where the regional vet labs were located but my proposed locations were not far from the mark. Of course, as a Glasgow graduate I naturally assumed that the mother city would be the epicenter.

Best Wishes,

Roger Breeze