The threat of a 'mad cow' plague is lifting but we still need to know more

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The Independent Online

Nothing must be done. It is not the usual style of leading articles to advertise causes for complacency or to call for government inaction. Not that anyone should be complacent about the human form of "mad cow disease", variant CJD. It has killed 53 people in this country and will kill more. But it is now clear that it is highly unlikely it will kill the hundreds of thousands that were once feared. And that is certainly important and welcome news.

Nothing must be done. It is not the usual style of leading articles to advertise causes for complacency or to call for government inaction. Not that anyone should be complacent about the human form of "mad cow disease", variant CJD. It has killed 53 people in this country and will kill more. But it is now clear that it is highly unlikely it will kill the hundreds of thousands that were once feared. And that is certainly important and welcome news.

Yesterday's announcement that there was no evidence of variant CJD in 3,000 recently-removed tonsils and appendices is bound to be seized on by those who claim that the whole British beef disaster was triggered by an unfounded scare story. They would be wrong to do so. We still know dangerously little about spongiform encephalopathies and their means of transmission between species.

Until the latest finding, one had to take seriously the possibility that variant CJD, with its apparently long incubation period, was a scythe hanging over the entire population of these islands. The probability of such a catastrophe occuring has now receded sharply, although it has not been eliminated altogether.

It was a little perverse, therefore, of the Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, to be so negative about the findings. It was all very well to point out the limitations of the research: the test may not detect all variant CJD cases and cannot detect cases where the disease is incubating, which could take up to 20 years. But to declare that "this doesn't take us any further forward" is too sweeping. The test can pick up some cases, and you don't need a degree in applied mathematics to know that zero out of 3,000 is a very low proportion.

The research must and will go on. Another 2,000 more recent samples are to be tested using better techniques. There are 20,000 samples altogether, and parallel research is going on into other aspects of the disease. But the likelihood is that the Government has already done what it needs to do in order to eliminate the causes of variant CJD, and that the focus of future research is going to be on quantifying the damage already done and on learning the lessons that are applicable to other fields.

It may not look like it yet to many farmers, to the victims of variant CJD, or to their respective families, but the beef crisis is now well into the recovery phase. It has been a salutary lesson in the dangers of intensive farming and a great boost to organic production. It has underlined the folly of having a government department dominated by the interests of producers, and the good sense in an independent Food Standards Agency. The Government has not had the courage to abolish the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but it has belatedly set up the agency.

And it has also been a test of the European Union. So far, that test has not been passed, but it has not been failed either. What the Eurosceptics have now to accept is that, were it not for the EU, there would be no prospect of our European neighbours allowing the import of any British beef at all. Yesterday's finding should help to restore public confidence in British beef among the people of France, which is what lies behind the French government's obstruction.

It has been a grim episode for Britain, and there are more casualties to come, but at least the worst fears of a hidden plague waiting to devastate the population are receding. For that, at least, let us give thanks.

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