UK foot and mouth 'possible sabotage'

Herald Sun | August 08, 2007

A PROBE into Britain's new foot and mouth disease outbreak has focused on whether staff at an animal vaccine firm may have spread the virus, possibly deliberately.

Health inspectors said there was a "strong probability'' the leaked strain came from the Pirbright research site southwest of London, which houses the Government's Institute for Animal Health and Merial Animal Health Limited.

A preliminary report into the outbreak said yesterday it was a "real possibility'' that human movement spread the disease to two nearby farms, with Merial coming increasingly under suspicion.

Foot and Mouth disease was first confirmed last Friday. Exclusion zones have been set up around the two farms found to have the disease and the laboratory. British meat exports have also been halted but this could be eased today by a meeting of EU experts in Brussels.

Amid media reports that other farms are under observation, farmers fear a repeat of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak that cost billions of dollars.

The Sun and the Daily Mail newspapers said a lab worker at Merial, which is owned by US drugmaker Merck and Co Inc and France's Sanofi-Aventis SA, could have spread the disease through his vegetable garden near the affected farm.

But in a statement today, Merial said: "To date, we have not been able to establish any evidence that the virus may have been transported out of our centre by humans.''

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report did not blame either the government laboratory or Merial but it found the disease strain was being worked on last month at the research facility.

That included "large scale production'' involving 10,000 litres by Merial, which produces vaccines, and "small scale experiments'' involving less than 10 millilitres by the IAH.

National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall told BBC television that legal action for compensation was being considered for lost earnings and other costs.

The HSE report dismissed as "negligible'' two initial theories that the virus was spread by flooding or aerial transmission.

But it identified a "number of biosecurity issues'' surrounding Pirbright's effluent treatment system, with Merial facing more questions, notably to do with its drainage facilities.

Merial has nonetheless been asked temporarily to restart production of foot and mouth vaccines and manufacture 300,000 doses in case the outbreak spreads.

The company said it did not release waste water from the Pirbright site. Instead, they treat the water, it is transferred to the IAH for further treatment then released.

A second report due out later today was to clarify further how the virus got to cattle grazing near Pirbright.

The facility is five kilometres from the farm where foot and mouth was initially confirmed.

The herd in a second outbreak confirmed yesterday was grazing adjacent to that. Around 200 animals have been slaughtered so far.