A Personal View by Dr James Irvine,
Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Stirlingshire.
The Scottish Farmer,
27 October 2001, pp. 18-19
SIR, - Some weeks ago (Sept. 29), The Scottish Farmer published in juxtaposition on the same page the comments of Professor Fred Brown and those of Professor David King.
As you pointed out, Prof Brown is the world's leading authority on foot-and-mouth disease, with vast experience of how the disease behaves throughout the world and how it has been controlled in differing circumstances.
He has made major contributions to the development of "new" foot-and-mouth vaccines and diagnostic tests to distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals.
He has collaborated with eminent virologists in the study of the structure of the foot-and-mouth virus and its sub-strains with spectacular success. That is indeed why he is acknowledged as the world's leading expert on the disease. What he is quoted as saying in The SF article makes clear sense. It is what he said as principal guest speaker at the Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference on foot-and-mouth disease, at the University of Glasgow, on September 7 this year.
By contrast, Professor King, while having the status of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, has no training in biology let alone virology, being an eminent physical chemist.
It would be hard to think of an academic scientific discipline more remote from the study of a highly infectious virus affecting the nation's farm livestock. Yet he could be expected to have sufficient critical acumen to assess basic scientific facts and not to be manipulated by political pressures or misinformation such as to distort these basic facts.
Bearing in mind that the UK foot-and-mouth epidemic is the worst the world has ever seen, Prof King's arguments against vaccination and justifying that culling had been the only way to bring the recent foot-and-mouth outbreaks under control and would remain so in the future are as follows:
- Since vaccinated animals can still carry the disease and harbour it for some considerable time, vaccination would be ineffective.
Does Prof King not understand even the fundamentals of any vaccination programme, be it for measles, smallpox, poliomyelitis etc?
You do not have to vaccinate every potential host for the virus, but a sufficient percentage to ensure that the virus does not have an adequate number of hosts left in which to replicate. That is why the Chief Medical Officer is so keen that the uptake of the triple vaccine for children does not fall below a certain percentage of the population.
It does not matter as far as epidemiological control is concerned whether children incubating the virus may remain infectious. If sufficient numbers of the total children at risk are vaccinated, the virus will die out of the population because in a relatively short time there will be nowhere for it to go. Likewise with foot-and-mouth disease in sheep and cattle.
- He states "that nation-wide mass vaccination does not necessarily stop the disease spreading from generation to generation." He argues that since mothers can pass antibodies to their offspring through their early milk, this gives temporary protection, but at the same time, interferes with the young animal's immune response.
So what? If sufficient numbers of farm livestock have been vaccinated, sooner, rather than later, there will be no infection for the young animals to pick up. How else does Prof King reckon that the devastating epidemics of viral infections in man have been controlled by vaccination? By worrying about whether an infant will have its immune response to the virus in question modified by antibodies from its mother? It sounds much more like a disingenuous justification for advising against vaccinating. Where has intellectual scientific honesty gone?
- He argued that mass vaccination was unacceptable because, in the absence of a recognised test to distinguish between antibodies caused by infection and antibodies caused by vaccination, it would have been impossible to tell the true extent of viral presence in the country's livestock.
He is quoted as saying: "If we had embarked upon such a programme, we would not have been able to free up large areas of the Scottish, English and Welsh countryside." What Prof King did not acknowledge was that the science of distinguishing antibodies produced by infection as opposed to those produced by vaccination has been available for a substantial number of years.
He also did not acknowledge that offers from abroad and indeed from within the UK to help were refused by the Government authorities. The Government agencies, although they were informed some years before the UK epidemic (and must have themselves been aware) that
the UK was a sitting duck for foot-and-mouth disease, apparently did nothing and refused all help to get such diagnostic tests (or indeed the "new" vaccines) validated for use in this country or indeed the EC.
The scientific basis for such diagnostic tests is sound. To do nothing in the face of such knowledge for so long in the presence of an obvious risk of catastrophe is inexcusable. How can the Government establishment at Pirbright, England, justify its status as a world centre for the study of foot-and-mouth disease? The "new" science (which in reality is several years old) would have predictably led to providing us with a diagnostic kit that could be applied on farm to check for evidence of infection or vaccination, with clear distinction between the two.
In other but related fields of scientific endeavour, there is plenty of evidence that this could indeed be achieved. Bureaucracy got in the way so that such important scientific advances could not be used until such time that trials in the EC had been done. The golden opportunity of doing the trials during the epidemic was missed with all help refused.
Such trials should have been done before the outbreak as part of a contingency strategy, which clearly was non-existent in spite of the obvious risk. Bureaucratic rules emanating from what appears to be an incompetent EC Veterinary Committee prevailed, while it waited to be asked.
Apparently, it does not intend considering what to do about the UK epidemic and its spread to elsewhere in the EC until later this year. Everyone must now be aware that the EC is very good at making endless directives, but is useless at business management in terms of making realistic decisions within a practical time frame.
The ongoing 20-day standstill in relation to the movement of livestock would have been unnecessary, etc, with immense economic and welfare savings. For example, livestock could be checked for the appropriate antibodies before they moved off the farm. A vaccination programme could readily be monitored for compliance etc.
Yet Prof King is quoted as saying that the same recipe of culling will apply should a further foot-and-mouth disease outbreak occur.
In arguing against vaccination, Prof King apparently made no reference the fact that we are as vulnerable as ever to a fresh attack of foot-and-mouth disease because illegal meat imports are still not controlled. An article on this subject was appropriately printed on the same page of The Scottish Farmer (but I did wonder at the picture of Prince Charles, his entourage, reporters and spectators being within easy touching distance of presumably unvaccinated sheep in a pen outside on a muddy, wet day in Cumbria).
Perhaps Prof King's philosophy on the risk of a new outbreak is either "being unthinkable" or "let's keep our fingers crossed." Neither will do, as foot-and-mouth is still an ever-present global disease.
With the current massive bureaucracy, we will certainly know much more about the movements of livestock within the UK, but that will do nothing to prevent a fresh attack entering the country, the consequences of which would still be very serious.
The idea of mass vaccinating 10 million animals is apparently mind-boggling to Prof King. I wonder if he knows how many sheep and cattle are routinely vaccinated for other disease every year as part of established and effective disease prevention regimes?
How does he equate his concern to the fact that the independent company, Acambis, with a division in Cambridge, England, has recently been given an initial contract from the USA for 40 million smallpox vaccine doses (and that includes making a new vaccine for starters).
The international company United Biomedical, has already made the "new" vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease and clinical trials are under way in a number of countries, but neither Prof King or Pirbright want to know. Is this science or petty politics that we are dealing with?
Does Prof King not realise that vaccination for foot-and-mouth disease in Europe was commonplace until 1992, so that the UK at that time was at least partially protected from the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from abroad. Is he not aware that the Argentine has undertaken a massive vaccination programme?
You cannot fight a viral epidemic while playing silly political games or acquiescing to bureaucratic constipation. To add insult to injury, Prof King is reported in The SF article to have been concerned that if the UK had vaccinated, we would not be able to export to New Zealand and Australia who are foot-and-mouth disease free. Since when did we export large quantities of beef or lamb to these countries (or in recent years to any country?).
It was the same argument that led to the EC abandoning its foot-and-mouth disease vaccination programme and becoming foot-and-mouth disease free. What a mistake that was.
Prof King is also quoted in The SF article as casting serious doubts on the supposed worth of ring or buffer zone vaccination. On the basis that experience had shown that incubating cases could arise up to six miles from the source, he seemed to think this too large an area to handle by local vaccination. Surely the tactic of ring vaccination is to start well out from possible incubating cases (possibly 25 miles) and work towards the source.
He is quoted as saying that the only instance where he had favoured local vaccination was in April when much of Cumbria's 200,000 head cattle population was still in over-wintering sheds.
"They would have been vulnerable to infection when let out into fields. It was felt at the time to be worth all the consequences of declaring Cumbria a vaccinated area – however, despite lengthy discussion, farmers remained unconvinced. In the event, a large number of cattle became infected before they were let out," he admitted.
The trouble with this is that the basic scientific information that was made available through MAFF to farmers, including the NFU and NFUS, was seriously flawed. No wonder the farmers were sceptical in the light of such misinformation, some of which he continues to perpetrate as described already.
One thing I do agree with the government's chief adviser is that there is no room for complacency. Unfortunately, he and his advisory body appear to have it in mega-tonnes. If ever there was a need for a full public enquiry this is it.
However, before such an august body can report, there should be an urgent shake-up of the present scientific structure. For a biological problem let's have biologists and some input from the medical field with their vast experience of handling viral epidemics throughout the world, rather than esoteric physical chemists, epidemiological statistical wizards and Government vets who are brought up to apply endless regulations but not to think.
Perhaps the massive tragedy of September 11 with the threat of biological terrorism (which has been abundantly forewarned) will be the stimulus for that.