Labs Implicated In Foot-And-Mouth Outbreak | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: August 7, 2007

Labs Implicated In Foot-And-Mouth Outbreak

A leak from the site shared by Merial and a U.K. institute may have caused virus spread
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Critter Chemistry, Safety

Only six years after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) that caused the slaughter of more than a million cattle, sheep, and hogs and cost the British economy some $16 billion, the viral disease has popped up again in the U.K.

This time, though, it is looking increasingly likely that the disease was caused by a leak from a research site shared by the U.K.'s government-owned Institute of Animal Health (IAH) and the Sanofi-Merck joint venture Merial. Both labs have recently worked with the relatively uncommon strain of FMD virus identified in the new outbreak. And the site is less than 10 miles from the two farms where the disease has been confirmed.

IAH is the U.K.'s leading authority on FMD and is a world reference laboratory on FMD for the International Office of Epizootic Diseases and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Merial produces vaccines for FMD at the site, with production bound for use primarily in developing countries.

The widespread outbreak of FMD in the U.K. in 2001 left deep scars on farming and public health agencies. The direct impact was on the agriculture industry, which???to protect export markets???preferred widespread slaughter of threatened animals to vaccination. At the same time, media coverage of Dantean piles of animal carcasses burning and of closed paths and roads had a devastating impact on the entire country's tourist industry.

This time, the disease seems localized, confirmed at only two farms near the Pirbright research site, about 30 miles southwest of London. Authorities are now waiting to see whether the disease has spread beyond the two confirmed cases. They are also trying to work out the cause of the infection, which is not common in the developed world.

For example, the last major outbreak in the U.S. was in 1929, although FMD played a crucial role in the 1963 Paul Newman film, "Hud."

The FMD strain identified has not been found in animals recently, although both IAH and Merial have worked with it in the past month. The concern is that the virus could have spread by air or water or on an employee's clothing or car. Moreover, the site was flooded last month during heavy rains, and an accidental leak could have occurred then.

The directors of both IAH and Merial, however, have strongly denied that their biosecurity measures were lax or were breached.

In a statement, Martin Shirley, director of IAH, said: "IAH operates under strict biosecurity procedures licensed by DEFRA [the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs]. In addition to our general checks on biosecurity???operation of equipment, procedures, and physical barriers, which have shown no breaches of our procedures???we have been able to check our records specifically for use of this strain. Our results show limited use within the laboratory within the past four weeks."

And at Merial, David Biland, the U.K. unit's managing director, said his company took the voluntary decision "to suspend all production here at our Pirbright Center, a decision that was made in consultation with DEFRA. This site operates to the very highest international standards. And we have complete confidence in the integrity of our operation here. To date, our investigations continue to show no breach in our procedures. However, it is still too early in this investigation for anyone to determine the cause of the outbreak."

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