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THE OUTBREAK.....A MINORITY REPORT
If there was a “News item” that could instil fear, foreboding and that feeling of “Waiting for the executioner to arrive” then the morning news of Friday 3rd August 2007 in the UK would certainly “Fit the bill”. It was the news that there had been an outbreak of “Foot and Mouth” disease on a farm just 30 miles from London in the sedate county of Surrey. It is not a county noted for animal husbandry but there are, sporadically mixed with the largely arable landscape farms that specialise in sheep, pigs [hogs] and cattle both in the field of milk production and meat production. The news that there had been a confirmed case of “Foot and Mouth” sent a shudder through every farming community in the land not least because the epidemic of 2001 was still fresh to the mind of anyone in the industry. Such was the reaction that farms across the country went into “Lockdown mode” within minutes. Beds of straw appeared across farm tracks, boots were disinfected and social events were cancelled as the farmers set in place the “Siege engines” that had only been removed six short years ago. No one had to tell them to do it, no orders came from DEFRA [The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] they took the initiative based upon the experiences of 2001 and with very good reason. More than any other motive it was “Self-Preservation” and the secondary consideration of their neighbours who were both equally at risk and at the same time an equal danger of contamination.
Many farms still retained a supply of the disinfectant that came as “Ministry specified” from the last epidemic, those that did not drained the suppliers and stockholders of the commodity within hours but the lockdown was a silent and instantaneous indication of how seriously anyone even remotely connected to farming reacts to the news of an outbreak of a virulent pestilence that decimated the farming industry and cost the UK government £8 billion pounds [$16 billion] only half a decade ago. Almost simultaneously DEFRA restricted the movement of animals and the familiar siege tactics of six years ago returned.
The first high profile casualty of the concern that “Foot and Mouth” might spread was “The Harrogate Show” which the organiser’s had already had to move to another venue because the one they normally use had been wrecked by the torrential rain and floods of just two weeks ago. The tentage was in place, stalls laid out and brass bands playing but there were no sheep, no cattle or pigs and no goats, there were only horses. The cancellations of entries to the show mushroomed as the news of the outbreak spread northwards preceded by the concern that no one was going to do anything to give aid and succour to pestilence of known intent. Though everyone involved understood the need for restraint the spectre at the event was the thought that somewhere someone might do something that could cause it to spread however unwittingly.
The outbreak itself was centred upon a farm engaged upon the fattening of beef for slaughter. It had a herd of sixty animals and when the farmer noticed something wrong on Thursday he called in a vet, by Friday the vet’s suspicions that the aliment present was “Foot and Mouth” disease was confirmed. Quite what went through the mind of the farmer can only be imagined but one thing was certain, the death warrants of his entire herd had been signed and at that point his name would be the one repeated when the industry spoke of the outbreak of 2007.
The following hours held a turn of events that were to turn out to be an exoneration of that farmers code of practise and a plaudit of the farms bio-precautions because when the particular strain of virus that caused this particular outbreak was identified it proved to be unrelated to any known strain of the foot and mouth virus that had been known to be present in the UK for almost forty years. In fact the last outbreak caused by this particular strain of the foot and mouth virus had been wiped out in the Foot and Mouth epidemic of 1967 and the only place that it now existed was inside the containment buildings of two laboratories which were both no more than four miles from this outbreak. One was owned and run by a commercial scientific concern engaged upon the production of “Foot and Mouth Vaccines” and the other a Government run lab engaged upon research into animal health issues. Both vehemently deny any breech of security or bio-security at their facility but both had been working with the “Live virus” within the past month. Perhaps significantly both are located on the same site a Pirbright. The incubation period for Foot and mouth disease from this Virus is between two to fourteen days from contact.
The question that requires an answer is, “How did the virus get out of the labs across four miles of countryside and infect an otherwise healthy herd of cattle that unlit four days ago showed no sign of the disease?” The answer is as yet unforthcoming but it is almost certain that somehow it did and set in motion a chain of reactive events that have destroyed the life’s work of at least two farmers and cast the spectre of this pestilence once more upon an industry that is only just beginning to recover from the last time it struck.
There have been several theories put forward upon the viral escape, The Chief Vet at DEFRA maintains that this virus can be spread by close contact whilst it also has the ability to become airborne. The hypothesis allows for the virus to be carried by someone or something and deposited on the animal at the farm, in order for that to be credible there must have been a physical link between the research centre and the farm. So far one has not come to light. If it was airborne then why has it been so selective? Upon escape it would have infected a tract of land most probably in line with the prevailing winds of the area and whilst the first infected farm was in that tract of land there have been no reports of any further outbreaks between the infected farm and the Pirbright labs. A second outbreak was confirmed on Tuesday 7th but it was so close to the first incidence physical contact with an infected beast is a possibility that cannot be discounted. On prima face evidence it would seem unlikely that the virus was airborne. If it had been airborne there would almost certainly have been a cluster of outbreaks along the line of the wind direction.
Contamination from another beast can also be ruled out, as there have been no movements onto or off the farm for several weeks.
The hypothesis put forward by the farmer [Mr. Pride] himself seems most likely. He
maintains that the flooding resulting from the heavy rains in July caused a great deal of his land to flood and that was how the virus was carried the three or four miles from the labs to his land. It is also possible that a farm where the second outbreak was confirmed [within a mile of the labs] suffered the same fate from the same source, perhaps when the trail leads directly up the access road to the labs it will be admitted that they were actually responsible.
It is known that the last time the labs were working with the virus was July 16th a date that coincides with the flooding. Given that it was the flooded land that caused the virus to be present in the water it still leaves the question “How did it get out of the labs and into the water?” If the only source of this virus was the labs then somehow a procedural compromise has occurred.
The containment of the infected area is, so far intact. The immediate slaughter of so many beasts may at first sight seem “Draconian” but with the way that the 2001 epidemic spread from one farm to engulf a whole industry still fresh in the agricultural mind such measures are justified. DEFRA maintain that the lessons of the previous outbreak have been learned and in some respects they have, there has not been the indecisive prevarication that there was before most of what has taken place has been swift action. The disposal of the culled carcases however does seem to need some attention. The outbreak was just 30 miles west of London yet the infected carcases had to be taken by road to Froome in Somerset to an incinerator for destruction, Somerset has a high concentration of milk and livestock farms, perhaps higher than most counties in the UK. It would seem foolhardy to take infected carcases from a county that has few livestock holdings across more than 100 miles of the UK to a place where there is a beef herd or milk herd on almost every country lane. It is not a unique occurrence, when the recent outbreak of Avian Influenza hit
Poultry production in Suffolk the culled birds were taken to Staffordshire for destruction. Are there no incinerators closer to London than Somerset or Staffordshire?
An investigation into origin of the virus was ordered by Gordon Brown [Prime Minister] he said that he expected the report within 48 hours. That timeline expired at 11.30am on Tuesday 7th and the report was said to be delayed by the “Complex nature of the enquiry” [for complex nature read politically damaging].
There are two labs on that site, one funded and run by the government [who only appear to supply results/data to DEFRA] and the other licensed by the government and owned by Merial Animal Health [US/French owned]. If the findings identify Merial as the source then the government is off the proverbial meat hook. If however the enquiry found that it was the government lab that was responsible that might explain the long delay in the publication of their findings. There were an awful lot of farmers taken to task for “Lax bio security” in 2001. How will they react if it transpires that government scientists are responsible for this outbreak of Foot and Mouth? The report is expected to say very little when and if the HSE are “Allowed” to publish and it is an odds on certainty that the government lab will not be to blame in any way. For an alternative view of the truth read the original report if you can, you will be in the minority.
[7pm 07-08-07 still awaiting the report]
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