The recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in UK, possibly from a neighbouring laboratory working on vaccines for the disease, has raised the question of biosecurity in micro-organism research and the risks to the health of people, animals and plants.

The Initial report on potential breaches of biosecurity at the Pirbright site 2007, by the UK Health and Safety Executive states that there is a strong possibility that the FMDV strain involved in the outbreak of foot and mouth disease at a farm in Surrey in August 2007 originated from the Institute of Animal Health or Merial sites. The strain of virus isolated from the infected farm was also being worked on in both organizations (IAH and Merial) between 14-25 July 2007. There was large scale production (10,000 litres) at the Merial site and a series of small scale experiments (less than 10 millilitres) at the IAH. The examination found that there was little likelihood of an airborne release of the virus from the site, but there was potentially the possibility of waterborne release. However the possibility that surface water from flooding (southern England experienced unusually high rainfall in July causing flooding in many areas) at the site could have reached the infected farm is considered to be small due to distance, topography, and direction of flow of the water. The report goes on to say that human movement of materials, either deliberate or accidental from the site remains a distinct possibility. As a result a number of ‘lines of enquiry’ are being ‘urgently pursued’. The report provides the basis for a review of biosecurity that will be carried out by Professor Spratt of Imperial College, London.

If the further evidence emerges of the disease originating from the laboratories then the threat of legal action by farmers against them is a distinct possibility, particularly if the commercial company Merial is involved. As Peter Kendall of the National Farmers Union said "It is important to understand that farmers who have lost livestock at the moment are only being compensated for the value of that stock, there’s no [compensation for] consequential loss," he said. "If this turns out to be a commercial company, that has been and can be shown to have been careless in any way, my members are already very loudly saying, ‘We’ve lost money, our businesses are no longer able to function, we’ve got animals, extra feed costs, problems with capacity being squeezed on farms’. There are many, many costs that have been incurred by farmers through no fault of their own."

I heard a discussion on BBC radio yesterday on the question of whether it is right to allow production of vaccines in a country such as UK for disease that do not occur here. The spokesman for the farmers suggested that this was unfair because the risks of biosecurity lapses were being borne by the farmers and not the company producing the vaccines. That sounded like a reasonable point, except that if there was to be another outbreak of foot and mouth like the one in 2001, which did not originate in a laboratory, then vaccination could be a useful way of containing the disease. It would then be important for the country to source large quantities of the vaccine at very short notice, which might be difficult if could not be sourced locally.

The risks and benefits of working with micro-organisms are complex and it is easy to ignore the great benefits society gain from microorganisms, and to only focus on the problems caused by them. This issue is dealt with in a forthcoming paper by David Smith and Christine Rohde, Microorganisms: good or evil. The authors (David Smith is a CABI scientist and has extensive knowledge of the biosecurity issues involved in working with microorganisms, and maintaining a large culture collection) see the need for secure and safe system for access and distribution but one that does not restrict legitimate use of the organisms. They also suggest that rules should distinguish between dangerous organisms and those that present little risk. They point out the benefits that we gain from microorganisms including pest control, soil fertility, diagnostics, and vaccines, and also the need to understand microorganisms to enable authorities to protect society from the threats of bioterrorism.

The paper refers to the recently published OECD Best Practice Guidelines for Biological Resource Centres 2007, (published by OECD publications, 2, rue AndrĂ©-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France) which covers the development of biological resource centres, best practice for receiving, handling and preserving samples, as well as documentation and staff training. The guidelines cover all biological collections so would be relevant to laboratories handling viruses. As yet there is no way of ensuring that the guidelines will be followed by all relevant laboratories. 

Without jumping to premature conclusions about the Surrey FMD outbreak, the biosecurity systems are only as good as the people implementing them. Even with the best systems in place, in the end humans (by accident or malicious intent) are likely to be the weakest link.

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