Wasted nation: the truth about foot-and-mouth


The election pushed foot-and-mouth out of the news. Yet new outbreaks have led to more mass culls, and no one is telling us how many healthy animals are being killed. Worse, government policy is based on bad science

It was not meant to be like this. The idea was that the number of foot-and-mouth cases would drift gently down to hit zero by June 7. The manifestos were studiedly non-committal. The candidates would scarcely need to refer to it. Mr Blair had assured us that the worst was over. Now, suddenly, there is Settle. The Army has moved into the Yorkshire Dales and the killing has begun again. The awful realisation is finally dawning that this epidemic is far from over - indeed, it may never have been properly under control at all.

The truth about what has been happening behind the scenes has the makings of a true political scandal, for evidence is growing that the whole culling policy has been based on faulty science; that hundreds of thousands of healthy animals have been killed needlessly; that evidence which challenges the Government's scientific establishment has been suppressed or ignored and, worst of all, the strategy has not worked.

The inquest on all this, when it happens, will raise the most serious questions about MAFF, its organisation, expertise and qualifications. Those who have sought to challenge the data and the quality of scientific research on which MAFF has based its slaughter policy have been routinely sidelined. Co-operation has been refused to those who have offered to help with testing, and independent expertise has been rejected. One independent virologist has described MAFF's approach as "medieval". The figures are hard to come by, if only because MAFF has altered the way they are presented, and no longer records them regularly on its website.

To begin with, an average of 500 anmials were being killed for each outbreak. By mid-May that had climbed to 12,560. In one short period, between May 4 and May 12, more than a quarter of a million animals were killed, bringing the total of those destroyed or awaiting slaughter to 4.5 million. One estimate is that when newborn lambs, piglets and calves are added in, the figure could top six million, or nearly a tenth of all Britain's livestock.

But that may not be the final figure. The killing continues unabated. We may never know how many of those dead animals had contracted the disease. One suggestion, from a MAFF source, is that between 70 and 80 per cent were in fact healthy, but the proportion could be even higher. The reason we cannot find out is that most of those animals killed "on suspicion" or as "dangerous contacts" are no longer tested. There is thus no means of telling which were infected. This is not just sloppy procedure, it is rank bad science. Because without accurate data, epidemiological research is stymied.

"This is a catastrophic loss of opportunity to gain basic knowledge," says one non-MAFF scientist.

He goes on to allege, though, that it is characteristic of the way in which the organisation, which is responsible for Britain's agricultural policy, has handled the epidemic. From the outset it was convinced that contiguous culling was the only way of combating the disease, and it has stuck to that view whatever the evidence that vaccination was the only effective, civilised solution.

In mid-March, acting on advice from scientists at Imperial College, it laid down that any farm within three kilometres of an outbreak should be "killed out". There were to be no exceptions. Increasingly, however, it emerged that the strain of virus with which MAFF was dealing was quite different from that responsible for previous outbreaks, and that the data being used was misleading. The disease was spreading in ways that had not been anticipated. It was an Asian strain of type O, originating in China, and was prevalent mainly in sheep, which did not show the same immediate symptoms as cattle. By the time it had been diagnosed it might have been present for days, or even for a week or two - the full incubation period is three weeks and sheep may show little or no evidence of clinical disease. This meant two things: killing everything within three kilometres of an outbreak was no guarantee that it had not spread farther. And it made the search for a fast, reliable test crucial.

All this makes MAFF's response to Professor Fred Brown of the Plum Island laboratory in Rhode Island, a former deputy head of the UK's Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright, particularly baffling. As a veterinary virologist, Professor Brown is probably the world's leading expert on FMD. He has been involved in the development of a "farm-gate" molecular test to find the nucleic acid of the virus. This could indicate rapidly and accurately whether a flock or herd has contracted the disease or is incubating it. His approaches, made two months ago, were ignored.

According to MAFF, this is because his system has only been laboratory-tested and would not be recognised under European rules. Yet bringing it to Britain and testing it on a real epidemic would have yielded priceless information as well as saving the lives of thousands of animals.

Professor Brown has since carried out further experiments and has found out, among other things, that the present strain is not, as was first suspected, transmitted by air. Healthy pigs, separated by only a few yards from animals that had contracted FMD, failed to develop the disease even when fans blew air from the infected area towards them.

It appears that only direct contact or physical transmission of FMD cells in skin or saliva through grass, clothing or, indeed, blown in the updraft of funeral pyres, is to blame.

This is an important finding - but MAFF no longer listens to Professor Brown.

Another area of specialisation to which MAFF's approach seems cavalier is understanding basic virology. Recently, one UK virologist used by the NHS and the Public Health Laboratory to test blood for HIV or in post-transplant work contacted MAFF. He wanted to obtain some non-infectious treated virus or extracted nucleic acid to create a sensitive diagnostic "assay" - a means of detecting infection in the blood and thus making an accurate early diagnosis of FMD. It is a rapid system which MAFF does not use, preferring to rely on old-fashioned, labourintensive tissue culture methods taking several days. Again, the approach was turned down. The virologist was told that if he attempted to obtain potentially infected specimens independently, he would commit a criminal offence.

What shocked him, however, was an apparently casual remark by a senior MAFF veterinarian to whom he spoke, which suggested that the MAFF man did not know the difference between a protein and nucleic acid - a fundamental misunderstanding which raises serious questions about MAFF's expertise in this vital area.

None of those in senior positions advising the Governmment have any known expertise in virology. MAFF's obstinate refusal to listen to outside scientists may have something to do with its hostility to private enterprise. Yet at the same time the Government's laboratory at Pirbright shows every sign of being downgraded.

Dr Paul Kitching, described by one colleague as "a gem of veterinary science", left his post as senior researcher last Friday. He is going to Canada; his job is being advertised at a lower salary.

Other leading figures at Pirbright will also be leaving soon. It seems strange that in the middle of the world's worst outbreak of FMD, the very experts needed to chart its progress and to establish Britain as a world leader in animal diseases are departing.

The picture that emerges is of a Government machine driven by ideology rather than by expertise. Determined to defeat the disease by the sheer weight of the slaughter policy it has imposed, it seems incapable of absorbing up-to-date research from anyone outside the magic circle which might challenge its credentials. Since it has the farming unions on its side, it can ignore well-founded arguments for vaccination that would have saved the country billions of pounds, rescued its tourist industry and prevented the needless slaughter of healthy animals. Even ministers, it seems, were incapable of diverting it from its chosen purpose. This had, it seemed, achieved the immediate purpose of shifting foot-and-mouth off the political agenda until after June 7. Now even that tactic seems to have failed.

Already we can see the defence that will be raised. Irresponsible farmers will be blamed for spreading the infection. If exports cannot be reinstated, well, it was not for lack of trying. And if the country lies deserted, barren, empty of life, then at least we know that there are no dangerously infective animals wandering round it. But what a price to pay. What an offence against our countryside and our animals. Someone, somewhere, will sooner or later have to account for it.