Scientists urge BSE tests on monkeys

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The Government's stance on BSE came under renewed scientific fire yesterday, as a world expert on the disease said it should now be assumed to have been transmitted to man, and a leading science journal accused agriculture officials of trying to hide vital information.

Charles Weissmann, of Zurich University, who heads a team of independent scientists appointed by the European Commission, said the available evidence of a link between BSE and the new variant of the brain disorder Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease (CJD) was "sufficiently suggestive" that we should act as though it were proven. He called for new experiments on monkeys to help determine the extent of the risk of BSE to human health.

So far 15 cases of the new variant of CJD have been reported in Britain, all in the past three years. BSE was first reported in the UK herd in 1986. Professor John Collinge, a leading UK expert, said the chances against the two being connected are "astronomical".

Meanwhile, the journal Nature today reports one scientist as saying that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was "scared" about releasing information on the extent of BSE to independent scientists at the University of Oxford, because it would reveal how many diseased cows which were not showing symptoms had been consumed by the British public.

The Oxford work, published in August, suggested that up to 700,000 diseased cows were used in food. The Government latched on to the prediction that BSE would die out by 2001, to stop the slaughter, agreed with the EU, of 140,000 cattle.

However, Professor Weissman cast doubt on the claims about the eradication of BSE, suggesting that it could be endemic, albeit at low levels.

He also said that 10 years of research had left key questions about the disease unanswered. He advised new research to establish how BSE is passed from cows to their calves, whether BSE originated spontaneously in cattle and not as is believed crossed from sheep, and on whether pigs and chickens can develop the disease from infected feed.

The Zurich-based professor said there was no evidence "so far" to cite milk as a risk factor but added that the available tests may not be conclusive.

Professor Weissmann said the Oxford claim was premised on the assumption that contaminated feed was the only source of the BSE in cattle. He suggested that there may be transmission mechanisms scientists are not yet aware of.