Tory cuts in funding 'held back research into BSE'

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Research into mad cow disease was seriously impeded by a decision to starve a world-renowned research centre of funding just when the epidemic had begun to emerge, a former government adviser said yesterday.

Research into mad cow disease was seriously impeded by a decision to starve a world-renowned research centre of funding just when the epidemic had begun to emerge, a former government adviser said yesterday.

Maitland Mackie, a dairy farmer who chaired a funding committee as a lay adviser, said that studies into bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were put back more than two years by the "crazy" decision.

Mr Mackie was chairman of the animals committee of the Agriculture and Food Research Council in the late Eightieswhen it was told by the Thatcher government to introduce a series of science cutbacks. The committee was advised by civil servants from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) to pull money out of the Neuropathogenesis Unit (NPU) in Edinburgh, which had a track record in researching scrapie, the spongiform encephalopathy of sheep.

The committee decided instead to divert BSE research to Maff's Central Veterinary Laboratory in Surrey, which had at that time little expertise in the disease, and the Research Council's Institute of Animal Health in Compton, Berkshire.

"I clearly now know that that was a serious mistake," Mr Mackie said yesterday in an interview with Radio 4's Farming Today programme.

The NPU, which in 1998 finally confirmed the link between BSE and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, was best positioned to take the lead in BSE research after the disease first emerged in 1986, Mr Mackie said.

"My committee was steered by the executives that supplied the information [to believe] that the Institute of Animal Health was the place to put this new work on BSE," he said."[But]... the expertise of the world was sitting there at the NPU under Alan Dickinson and his team."

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