Muckspreader 4 december

With more than £30 million a year in funding at stake, researching the link between BSE and CJD has long been a highly lucrative industry for a small group of scientists.  The only trouble is that, six years after the great BSE scare reached its peak in 1996, they still haven't managed to come up with any actual proof of a link.  Gone are the heady days when Newsnight could get Professor John Pattison of SEAC to agree that we could well soon be looking at 500,000 deaths from eating BSE-infected beef,  or when the Observer could chill its readers' blood by running apocalyptic forecasts from the great Professor Lacey that by 2015 the French would be slamming the doors of the Channel Tunnel as Britons died of CJD in their millions.  And now, with the news that variant CJD deaths are now actually declining - from 28 in 2000 to only 15 this year - the evidence for any link with eating beef becomes virtually non-existent.

Already, in their efforts to justify the continuation of that funding lifeline, the scientists have had to become ever more ingenious. For a long time the front-runner in this game was Professor John Collinge of St Mary's, Paddington, with his experiments injecting the brains of genetically-modified mice with BSE prions.  Regularly a new paper would appear claiming that his mice were looking seriously poorly, the unspoken subtext being could he please have some more money to continue his vital researches. But earlier this year it seemed Collinge was being outplayed at his own game by Professor Roy Anderson. Thanks to the patronage of his friend, Professor Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency, Anderson and his Imperial College team were able to come up with a new study on what had long been Collinge's own patch, claiming that sheep might well be just as susceptible to mad cow disease as, er, cows. If only more money could be spent on finding that elusive final scrap of evidence needed actually to prove the theory, we might have an excuse to kill all the 40 million sheep in Britain.

Two weeks ago Collinge hit back. Ably publicised as usual by the Daily Telegraph's science editor Dr Roger Highfield, Collinge claimed that it may not just be the 119 cases of variant CJD since 1994 that should be blamed on eating beef, but also the 588 cases of 'sporadic' CJD recorded since 1990. Just why sporadic CJD, discovered in the 1920s, should suddenly be caused by BSE after 1990 but not before is not entirely clear. But never mind. Such a  dramatic 400 percent boost in the number of "BSE deaths" was surely enough, suggested Collinge, to justify a massive new research programme based on screening everyone's tonsils. This was immediately supported by his American ally Prof.Stan Prusiner, who has developed a new test for CJD which he now suggests should be used on every person in Britain. This might be jolly healthy for Prof.Stan's bank account. But the fact remained that even 588 was still a little way short of those hundreds of thousands of deaths confidently predicted by the scientists only six years ago. And now comes the most alarming news of all: that vCJD cases are actually in sharp decline, just when, if the scientists' long-promised BSE-related epidemic was ever to materialise, they should be hurtling upwards. In other words, there might have been rather more useful ways to spend all that taxpayers' money.