Countryside in crisis: Outbreak linked to leak from foot and mouth laboratory

As national movements on livestock are stopped and the cull of infected animals begins, experts are investigating nearby research institutions that keep stocks of the virus for study
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The outbreak of foot and mouth disease that was yesterday devastating the British livestock industry for a second time in a decade seems to have been a spectacular "own goal" by the animal health industry.

Last night, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the strain of foot and mouth disease found on a farm in southern England was identical to one used at a nearby laboratory. This raised the prospect of the outbreak being caused by a leak from one of the facilities most concerned with trying to defeat the disease. The only two laboratories licensed in this country to work with live foot and mouth disease virus are at Pirbright, Surrey, within three miles of the infected farm. And, The Independent on Sunday understands, there have been no movements of cattle at the infected farm since June.

A statement, issued by Defra last night, said: "The FMD strain found in Surrey is not one currently known to be recently found in animals. It is most similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and in vaccine production, including at the Pirbright site shared by the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Ltd, a pharmaceutical company. The present indications are that this strain is a 01 BFS6–like virus, isolated in the 1967 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Great Britain. This strain is present at the IAH and was used in a batch manufactured in July 2007 by the Merial facility. On a precautionary basis Merial has agreed to voluntarily halt vaccine production."

An exclusion zone has now been set up around the Pirbright labs and a review into "biosecurity arrangements" at both sites has been commissioned from Professor Brian Spratt of Imperial University. A Merial spokesman said last night: "It's a bit early in the day to say where the outbreak occurred. We are cooperating fully with the UK government to detect the source of the disease and will support DEFRA and its scientists to help bring this outbreak to as speedy and satisfactory a conclusion as possible."

This extraordinary prospect came on a day of fast-moving events headed by the announcement mid-afternoon that there were possible infections at several other farms. Other developments included Gordon Brown returning from his Dorset holiday to chair a meeting of Cobra in Downing Street, movements of all livestock being banned, exclusion zones around the infected farm, an automatic European Union ban on all British livestock exports, and the start of slaughter of dozens of infected cattle. Pigs, goats and sheep on a neighbouring farm have also been culled.

The impact beyond farms was almost immediate. Country shows have been cancelled, among them Emley Show in West Yorkshire and Cockermouth Show in Cumbria. Others, such as the Brecon County Show and the Oswestry and Garstang shows, will go ahead but without livestock.

The tourist industry began to suffer, too. Woburn Abbey, its deer park and Woburn Safari Park were shut yesterday, and other similar attractions are expected to follow suit. But the Government says it does not intend to put large swathes of the countryside out of bounds to walkers, as it did in 2001.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, speaking after the Cobra meeting, said: "We will be doing, night and day, everything in our power to make sure that what happens happens quickly and happens decisively in a way that can reassure people that everything is being done. I want to thank the farming communities and indeed all rural communities for their tremendous co-operation and for the forbearance and patience that has been shown in what I know is a very anxious time for our rural communities."

The outbreak, at a farm between Aldershot and Guildford, instantly brought farmers the prospect of reliving the cruelly costly year of 2001. That epidemic led to the slaughter of between 6.5 and 10 million animals, ruined many businesses, halted much tourism, and is estimated to have cost the country up to £8.5bn. Many farmers went out of business; some are only just now recovering.

The seat of the infection this time is a "beef finishing" holding at Wanborough in Surrey, run by Derrick Pride. The alarm was first raised here some days ago when symptoms in the beef herd were reported to the local animal health office. Throughout Friday vets tested animals at the farm, and then, early on Friday evening, the Prime Minister was informed foot and mouth had been found.

A 3km "protection zone" and a 10km "surveillance zone" were immediately imposed around the farm, a national ban was placed on the movement of all sheep, cattle and pigs, and police forces were directed to be on the alert for any breaches. Around the country farmers were putting disinfectant barriers down to try to protect their cattle.

Farmers' leaders praised the Government for reacting far more quickly than in 2001, although one woman who lived near the infected farm suggested that the response was not as swift as widely imagined. Lorraine Perfect of Westwood Lane, Normandy, said: "They knew about it Thursday night and there were a load of vets there yesterday but the road was only cordoned off this morning."

Professor Ian McConnell of University of Cambridge Veterinary School, and a member of the Royal Society's inquiry on infectious disease and livestock that followed the outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001, said: "This has got to be taken seriously. Every outbreak, no matter how small, has the potential to become an epidemic. In the last 80 years there have been five outbreaks – all of which have led to serious epidemics, so you have to be on top of these things from day one.

"It is crucially important to establish the strain of the virus and that is information that is absolutely essential because one has to identify the strain before you can consider any emergency vaccination. Defra should be ready with vaccination teams on standby. We need to be seriously considering emergency vaccination now."

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said: "If the animals have got the disease they should be killed, but the Government should already be vaccinating around the farm to control the spread."

Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said the farming industry would not oppose the use of vaccination of livestock if that was the scientific advice.

Vaccination is not a straightforward matter. The precise strain of the virus has to be known before an emergency vaccination programme can start. Last night, as the frantic work to identify the source of the infection, and its strain, went on, Professor McConnell was sceptical that laboratories may be the source of the infection. "Vaccine banks have foot and mouth disease under conditions of extreme biosecurity."

Farmers yesterday blamed the Government for allowing food imports from countries where the disease is rife. Devon NFU spokesman Ian Johnstone said: "Foot and mouth are the three words which farmers never wanted to hear again. On a national level the biosecurity has failed and now we hope that we can prevent this outbreak becoming an epidemic through biosecurity at the farm level."

Richard Haddock, who farms more than 1,000 acres with 1,000 beef cattle at Kingswear and Brixham in south Devon, said: "We are still importing from South America which is endemic with foot and mouth."

Dr Bernard Vallat, director of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), added: "Other countries such as the US and Canada have not had these kinds of outbreaks for 50 years. Australia and New Zealand have had no problems for more than 50 years. We have only 53 countries worldwide that are free of the disease. There are more than 100 infected countries, so the virus can circulate because of the commercialisation of goods and people."

Local Conservative MP Humfrey Malins believed the farmer on whose property the virus was found had a good reputation and was "shattered" by the discovery. "One must feel so sorry for him," he said.

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the key players

Gordon Brown cut short his holiday in Dorset to return to London yesterday to reassure people that the Government 'will be doing night and day everything in our power to make sure that what happens happens quickly and happens decisively'. He said inquiries had already been set up to find the disease's source.

Richard Macdonald, the director-general of the National Farmers' Union, was taken aback by the news, saying it had been a 'devastating 24 hours for the livestock industry'. He strongly defended the farmer at the centre of the outbreak, thanking him for his decisive action in alerting the authorities.

Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, was at both of the Government's emergency Cobra meetings. He said widespread vaccination had not been ruled out. 'Obviously, the vaccine would have to be developed, which takes a few days, but it is important that we are guided by the science on this.'

Debby Reynolds, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, stressed that the lessons from the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak had been learned but that the outbreak was, nevertheless, 'a big blow'. Dr Reynolds said yesterday that her objective was for 'a speedy, systematic and scientific response'.