December 19, 2002 in the Times

A bovine attempt to vaccinate us against the truth
by Magnus Linklater



My award for most brazen performance of the year in the face of hostile
evidence, goes not to Peter Foster, who claimed that his advice to Cherie
Blair was nothing more than “a little help from your friends”, but to
Professor David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser. He
described the handling of last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic as “quite an
achievement . . . a magnificent record”. He told the Today programme
yesterday (Dec 18) that securing Britain’s status as an FMD-free country was a cause
for “celebration”.
This is taking presentation beyond mere spin. It is the steamroller approach
to bad news — you simply flatten it into the ground and roll on as if
nothing had happened. The fact that it comes from a scientist rather than a
politician is rather shocking. It suggests that, here too, factual evidence
is less important than defending positions. Professor King was reacting to
the European Parliament’s report on how Britain had dealt with the outbreak.
It concluded that the Government had been ill-prepared, slow and inefficient
in its response, that the mass culling of healthy animals had been
“unacceptable”, and that the slaughter had caused enormous suffering and
social dislocation, resulting in massive financial losses to tourism and
sport, as well as farming.

On the scientific side, it said that the UK’s contingency planning for
vaccination had been minimal, and was a serious policy flaw. Far from being
unworkable, as Professor King and his colleagues have consistently claimed,
vaccination would have enabled Britain to control the outbreak more quickly,
without the killing and burning which caused such damage. “In future,” it
recommended, “when an outbreak occurs, emergency vaccination, with the aim
of allowing animals to live for normal use, should no longer be regarded as
a last resort for controlling FMD, but must be considered as a first-choice
option from the outset.”


One might have thought that this conclusion, flying as it does in the face
of government policy, would have provoked a vigorous response from Professor
King. But no. Pressed to say how Britain would respond if there were another
outbreak, he talked about the importance of restricting animal movements.
The 20-day ban on moving newly purchased sheep or cattle meant that the
epidemic “should never happen again”. In short, controlling the disease is
now in the hands of farmers rather than scientists. It is not an encouraging
prospect.

I find Professor King’s obduracy almost impossible to comprehend. In
Uruguay, recently, a full-scale FMD outbreak was brought under control after
all its ten million cattle had been vaccinated. The disease was eradicated
in 15 weeks, and fewer than 7,000 animals were killed. Uruguay is once again
exporting meat to the EU. It has to de-bone and hang it first, but that
seems a modest price to pay, compared to the multibillion- pound cost of our
own epidemic.

Why, then, is that route not open to Britain? Professor King argues that one
of the barriers against vaccination is that there are no “validated” tests
to distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals — so there is a risk
of spreading, rather than containing, the disease. He must know that there
are perfectly good tests available, and the only reason for the delay is
that the OIE, the Paris-based organisation whose approval is needed, suffers
from ice-bound bureaucracy. Why is Britain not loudly complaining about the
delays? Why are we not, in the words of the EU report, “expanding research
into vaccines” and taking the lead in science, rather than waiting for
European bureaucrats to tell us what to do? Why are we choosing to protect
farm exports at all costs, instead of using every opportunity to make the
case for good science and humane practice?

I wish that Professor King would tell us.