As soon as I heard the news on Saturday (4 August) that foot and mouth disease had returned to the UK, being found in a herd of cattle near to Guilford, I thought “That’s suspiciously close to the Pirbright Laboratory.” The Institute of Animal Health (IAH) has for a long time been a world centre for research into foot and mouth disease and is a world reference centre for the disease. The Pirbright site also houses a laboratory of Merial Animal Health Ltd which produces foot and mouth disease vaccine. Both of these laboratories are now being investigated as a possible source of the outbreak.
The disease outbreak occurred in a herd of cattle and the strain of the foot and mouth disease virus found in infected animals is not one currently known to be recently found circulating in animals in other parts of the globe. It is most similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and in vaccine production, including at the Pirbright site shared by the Institute of Animal Health and Merial. The present indications are that this strain is an O1 BFS67-like virus, isolated in the 1967 foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain.
The last outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK was in 2001 and caused massive disruption to farming, the rural economy and cost the country billions of pounds. Millions of livestock (many of them healthy) were slaughtered and the burning of so many carcasses caused pollution. The full horror of the outbreak is well described in a book by Judith Cook, called ‘The year of the Pyres’. As a result of that outbreak the government undertook an extensive review of the control measures and responses to future outbreaks, though I suspect that everyone hoped that they would not be tested so soon. It became clear during the 2001 outbreak that the rural economy consists of much more than just farming and that measures designed to control the disease should also take these into account, as well as considering animal welfare. As a result, the UK now has a ministry for ‘Food, Environment and Rural Affairs’ in place of the previous Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food.
In 2001 the countryside was ‘closed down’ and the extensive network of footpaths was put off limits for the public. In contrast, the new regulations which came into effect within hours of the discovery of the outbreak on Saturday restrict the movement of animals but do not include the closure of the countryside as in 2001. People can still use footpaths except within the 3km exclusion zone that has been placed around the farm where the outbreak was found (and now around Pirbright Laboratory). DEFRA state that their control measures should minimise the impact on the rural economy, international trade and the wider public welfare, and protect the welfare of the animals concerned. Even though the control measures are less drastic than those of 6 years ago, the economic effects of the outbreak will soon be felt, as export markets around the world close their doors to animals and animal foods from the UK.
The Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, which is currently being investigated is a government funded organization to which exists to research into infectious diseases of livestock, exotic to the UK, and to control, prevent or limit infections. The Institute produces information and advice that is used by the UK Government, the European Union and international agencies in developing animal health and welfare policies. This includes surveillance and diagnostic services for major viral diseases including foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, bluetongue and African swine fever. As a world reference centre for foot and mouth disease it can provide diagnostic services 24hrs a day, 365 days a year.
When I visited the Pirbight laboratory some years ago it was clear that they had very strict biosecurity measures in place, as one would expect in a centre dealing which a range of the most dangerous animal viruses in the world. The escape of viruses from research laboratories has occurred in the past with serious consequences. I can remember the spread of smallpox from Birmingham (UK) University in 1978 after the disease was considered to have been eradicated. After that outbreak the World Health Organization banned research on smallpox and ordered viral stocks to be destroyed (except for one institute in the USA and one in USSR).
Foot and mouth disease is still prevalent in many parts of the world with outbreaks in recent months in India,China, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, and several other countries. The disease is so infectious that it can rapidly spread from farm to farm infecting cattle, sheep, pigs and other ruminants. Trawling through the CAB Abstracts Database for information on the risks of outbreaks of foot and mouth I came across an interesting study by epidemiologists at the Veterinary Laboratory Agency, entitled ‘A Quantitative Assessment of the Risks from Illegally Imported Meat Contaminated with Foot and Mouth Disease Virus to Great Britain’. The authors considered that the greatest threat of the disease entering the UK comes from the illegal import of animal products. The authors estimate that the amount of illegal meat imported into Great Britain to be 11,875 tonnes a year. Of this the greatest risk of importing the disease comes from meat smuggled by individuals in their luggage. Larger quantities of meat may be smuggled in by sea but the virus is more likely to deplete on the longer journey. Imports from the Near and Middle East account for 47% of the risk, and 68% of the risk was attributed to bone-in and dried de-boned products.
Whatever the origin of the current outbreak, it probably won’t be the last time the control measures will be used as the virus takes advantage of greater human mobility to spread around the world.
Cook, J. 2001. The year of the pyres. The 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic. Mainstream Publishing C., Edinburgh, UK. (ISBN 1 84018550 3).
Emma Hartnett, Amie Adkin, Miles Seaman, John Cooper, Eamon Watson, Helen Coburn, Tracey England, Christophen Marooney, Anthony Cox, Mavion Wooldridge (2007)
A Quantitative Assessment of the Risks from Illegally Imported Meat Contaminated with Foot and Mouth Disease Virus to Great Britain
Risk Analysis 27 (1), 187–202.