Thousands of animals to be infected in BSE experiment

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The Independent Online
A HUGE seven-year programme of experimentation and research into mad cow disease, involving hundreds of cattle and sheep and thousands of mice - some of them, genetically-engineered - has been quietly launched by the Government.

One Whitehall source told The Independent: "We are leading the world on research into BSE, which is quite right because we did, after all, give the world BSE in the first place."

The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (Maff) was reluctant to divulge details of the programme, which could ultimately cost more than pounds 150m.

But The Independent has been told that work is being done at two sites. A number of "discreet" buildings have gone up on an estate run by the Central Veterinary Laboratory Agency, near Weybridge, Surrey - where experiments and research are being carried out into the origins of BSE, and its effect on animals and people. One source said there were 700 cows there. Other research is being carried out at a ministry site near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Because the work involves infecting cows, sheep and mice with BSE and scrapie, the Government is probably concerned about the prospect of animal rights protests, and people living nearby might also become concerned for their safety. It is thought that residents in the Weybridge and Stratford areas are largely unaware of the nature of the BSE research.

A Maff spokesman said that up to the end of last month, the Government had spent a total of pounds 80m on research into BSE. No firm estimates are available, but the new research programme could eventually cost twice as much again. The Independent has been told that it is proving "a massive drain" on the Maff budget.

Conditions at the two sites are so restricted and secure that there is little human contact with the infected animals and there is an on-site veterinary hospital to deal with unrelated sickness or injury.

The ministry spokesman said work included "looking at the scrapie strains in sheep" to see if any of the strains were similar to BSE. Other work involved seeing how mice reacted to BSE. "Some of the mice have been engineered to be biologically similar, in the way they react to BSE in cows."

Government sources say that the research programme was initiated last August after the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) had urged greater co-ordination of effort.

The Independent has been told that work now being carried out is so thorough that the scientists are trying to nail down the actual source of BSE.

While the official view continued to maintain that the source was cattle feed, and that was the consensus in SEAC, all possibilities were being seriously examined. Going right back to scratch, the research teams are ruling nothing in, and nothing out - and they are even examining the theory, presented to the BSE inquiry this week, that the disease might have been caused by organophosphates.

In similar vein, maternal transmission and the contamination of milk are also being examined - in spite of all previous research showing no evidence for concern.