UK Hoof-and-Mouth: Ministers Want Private Lab to be Blamed for Leak

" ... A letter from the investigators points the finger of suspicion at the private labs of MERIAL, the United States-based company which runs a vaccine-manufacturing plant ... "

By Colin Brown
Published: 09 August 2007

Ministers are frustrated by the failure of the Health and Safety Executive to assert that a private laboratory at Pirbright, Surrey, was to blame for the leak which led to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

A letter from the investigators points the finger of suspicion at the private labs of MERIAL, the United States-based company which runs a vaccine-manufacturing plant next door to the research laboratories of the world-renowned public Institute for Animal Health (IAH).

The letter was sent to the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, by Dr Paul Logan, the lead investigator for the Health and Safety Executive, with its interim report on the outbreak. It was seen by ministers as a signal that the public laboratory would be cleared.

"My assessment is that there is no reason to prevent the Institute for Animal Health from operating providing that all the usual biosecurity protocols are followed rigorously," said Dr Logan.

"The situation regarding Merial is less clear-cut, and I would advise that further work be done before any operations involving live pathogens are restarted."

Dr Andrew King, former head of the department of molecular biology at IAH Pirbright, said yesterday that high standards of biosecurity were kept at the public laboratory.

"Leaving the building you have to change and have a shower," he said. "Staff are not permitted to have contact with animals, or visit premises where susceptible animals are kept for a period of three or five days. If they work in the labs where the testing work is done that's three days. If they are in animal houses then it is five days."

Suspicion continued to hang over the public laboratories yesterday. The outcome could be costly for the Government, which is still facing claims for millions of pounds of compensation from farmers across the country for lost business.

Security checks are believed to be under way on the laboratory staff at Pirbright to rule out the possibility that the disease was spread deliberately as an act of bioterrorism.

Merial Timeline (click to enlarge)
August 9, 2007

'Strong possibility' that foot and mouth came from Pirbright

In its initial report, the HSE confirmed that the virus strain found at the outbreak farm was being worked on at both organisations - but did not state from which the outbreak stemmed. Merial are involved in large scale production of the virus strain (01FS67) - handling around about 10,000 litres, where as the IAH conduct small scale experiments using less than 10mls in each case.

The report did however state that release by human movement must be considered a real possibility. It also concluded that waterborne release onto the site is a possibility - yet the distance from Pirbright to the infected farm was too great for infection to occur by surface water alone. As such, some have suggested that the virus was transported by human means after being disposed of in a drain that subsequently leaked.

... Merial have been quick to refute this and said in a statement: “Over the last three and a half days we have conducted intensive investigations. To date we have not been able to establish any evidence that the virus may have been transported out of the centre by humans.”

A Merial member of staff has accompanied DEFRA investigators to an allotment in the vicinity of the infected farm as part of the ongoing investigations. However, DEFRA investigators have advised that they have no evidence linking this member of staff to the outbreak.

Sir Brian Follet, Chair of the Royal Society Infectious Disease in Livestock Inquiry, said: “At this point much focus is turning towards the source of the foot-and-mouth virus but we would stress that the most important issue is preventing the outbreak turning into an epidemic. Clearly we shall need to watch most carefully during the next two weeks to see if more cases are indentified or whether this is an isolated case. At present the need is as before: rapid diagnosis, good surveillance and vigilance by farmers of their animals.”

In a strange twist, 300,000 doses of the foot and mouth vaccine have been ordered from Merial in order to prepare for any possible vaccination programme. Defending the decision to use the company that is linked to the outbreak, environment secretary Hilary Benn said: “In order to consider vaccination as an option, we’ve got to have the vaccine ready. It’s the best place we can go if we take the decision that we want to do it.”

The HSE and DEFRA are continuing their investigation, and an independent review of biosecurity to be lead by Professor Sprat of Imperial College is also to follow.

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