Foot and mouth stops Pirbright lab producing any bluetongue vaccine

Research centre leading the fight against the latest threat to British farmers is powerless to act
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The Independent Online

Britain's battle against the bluetongue virus is being hampered because the vaccine used to counter it was being developed at the private Surrey laboratory now closed because it is suspected of being a source of the foot and mouth outbreak, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The Merial centre, next to the Institute of Animal Health in Pirbright, was in the final stages of producing the vaccine against bluetongue when it was forced to stop its work with live viruses two months ago. No other labs are thought close to a similar breakthrough. The vaccine is weeks behind schedule and will not be ready in time to vaccinate animals against a predicted resurgence of the virus next summer.

During a visit on Friday to the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) in Pirbright, the IoS was told that animals would need to be vaccinated by early spring next year if we are to have a "fighting chance" against the latest virus to hit Britain's farm animals. But Merial has been unable to work with live viruses for almost two months, following concerns over biosecurity measures.

The Pirbright buildings – there are plans for a new £120m "superlab" by 2001 – look more like a rundown 1970s secondary school than those housing one of the world's leading animal disease research centres.

Professor Peter Mertens, who has researched the bluetongue virus for 25 years at the IAH, said: "If we vaccinate animals in East Anglia in time to create a buffer zone of animals before the midges start to reappear next May, we may be able to contain the virus, or even stop it from re-emerging."

But Merial has ruled out the possibility of the vaccine being ready until early summer at the earliest. "We are pretty confident that we have a vaccine that will work," a spokesman said. "But until Defra decides that we can work with live viruses at our Pirbright centre, we cannot make the vaccine."

Defra confirmed no vaccine orders had been placed. A spokesman said: "Further inspections are being carried out at Merial and, provided these are satisfactory, we hope to be able to allow the use of live virus at the site within weeks."

A National Farmers Union spokesman said: "Every non-scientific obstacle to the development and deployment of a vaccine must be removed as a matter of the utmost urgency."