TB breakthrough could save Britain's badgers

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Scientists have made a breakthrough in efforts to find a vaccine for tuberculosis in cattle – which may be good news for Britain's badgers.

Scientists have made a breakthrough in efforts to find a vaccine for tuberculosis in cattle – which may be good news for Britain's badgers.

Badgers have long been suspected of harbouring the bacterium that causes bovine TB, and a trial is under way to find out if culling them reduces the risks to cattle herds.

The trial, which began two years ago, has been suspended since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease last year, but is likely to resume later this spring. It is taking place in 30 areas of countryside, in all of which some badgers are being killed. The estimate is that 12,500 of Britain's 300,000 badgers will have been culled by the time it finishes in 2005.

Animal welfare campaigners have been strongly opposed to the trial, but farmers, for whom bovine TB is a growing problem – 8,000 animals were slaughtered in 2000 because of the disease – have been in favour, as have senior scientists.

Yesterday, however, came news that may eventually mean badgers do not have to be slaughtered to halt the spread of the disease. An Anglo-French collaboration has found that the genome of the organism that causes bovine TB is 99.9 per cent identical to that of the bacterium causing the disease in humans – an important boost in the search for a vaccine that can treat all.

The sequencing of the genome is a result of collaborative work between the British Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), the Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, and the Institut Pasteur in France. The progress will allow a more rapid, effective test to be developed for bovine TB, and ultimately a vaccine. The disease is believed to cost the global economy £2.1bn a year.

Dr Glyn Hewinson, leader of the project at the VLA, said: "This is a great day for research into bovine tuberculosis. Our challenge now is to use this wealth of information as a springboard to develop the tools that are so desperately needed to eradicate this devastating disease."

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