From Mary Marshall
Animal Health Policy Coordinator
European Livestock Alliance
16 July 2003

I would like to draw your attention to the debate yesterday in the House of Lords on the FMD outbreak in Libya

(Hansard transcript is copied below).

We should all be grateful to Lord Plumb and the other members of the House of Lords for asking these important questions and for seeking answers with regard to the potential threat to the UK and to other EU member countries.

May I suggest for your consideration, some points arising from this debate?

It is puzzling that Lord Whitty should begin by saying that "We are satisfied that the existing plans and precautions are sufficient for the relatively low threat from Libya."   Yet, on further questioning Lord Whitty admitted that "In terms of the strain of the disease, the virus in Libya is SAT 2 which has never been recorded in North Africa previously." 

Is he aware that "SAT 2 is of concern because as a serotype it has a reputation for being highly contagious and antigenically diverse" (personal email from David Paton, IAH-Pirbright, 15 July 2003)?

Since, as Lord Whitty says, this serotype "has never been recorded in North Africa", let alone in Europe, it "may have implications in the epidemiology and clinical picture of the disease" (Paul Roger, letter to the Vet Record 7 July 2003).  Does this not increase the potential risk that it may arrive here and spread undetected?  Lord Whitty has not adequately answered Lord Plumb's question: "Will extra surveillance be instituted and targeted where risks are highest?"

I suggest that it is now time for an informed debate on what surveillance strategy would be most effective. The risks that widespread testing, e.g. using portable rapid diagnostic tests and testing milk at collection, could close down the UK with false positives must be set against considering that "the cost of 3-7 days national stoppage cannot be more than the cost of that number of days of free movement by viraemic animals." (personal email from Prof Martin Hugh-Jones, 6 March 2003).

Reports of the situation in Libya are particularly worrying and require reassurance from Lord Whitty that effective controls in Libya and in neighbouring countries, are, indeed, in place:

"The crucial question is, whether the virus -- which had penetrated into Libya (from where?) at least 8 weeks before its first reporting to the OIE, on 18 Jun 2003 -- is present also in the large populations of sheep and goats" (ProMED moderator, 5 July 2003).

"According to FAO statistics, the animal population of Libya includes 152 000 bovines, 6.4 million ovines and 2.2 million caprines. Preventing the introduction of the SAT 2 virus into small ruminants, which may become subsequently virus carriers for an unpredictable period (theoretically, up to several months), will need significant efforts" (ProMED moderator, 28 June 2003).

"We recognize the possibility that a different strain from the vaccine strain may circulate anywhere that FMD occurs, but in Libya, this is no longer just a possibility. In all probability, the animals in the country are not protected. Very rigorous disease and movement controls will be needed to keep ahead of this fast moving disease" (ProMED moderator, 21 June 2003).

I would ask Lord Whitty two questions:

1. Will the government seek assurance from Libya that they are being assisted by the bodies whose mandate and expertise is in emergency control (FAO/IAEA, OIE), so that we can be assured that sufficient samples are sent to the World Reference Laboratory at Pirbright for testing?  In addition to the samples from cattle which have been sent to Pirbright, this should include samples from sheep and goats, because of the added difficulties in control if infection has spread to nomadic herds.  What control measures does Libya have in place? Preventive vaccination?

2. What surveillance and preventive measures have been taken by other countries in the region, and especially Tunisia which is directly threatened since it borders the infected zone?  Have they requested these international bodies to assist them for rapid confirmation of infection?

Is Lord Whitty aware that there are currently FMD SAT outbreaks also in Malawi and Zimbabwe, and of FMD in Paraguay and Bolivia, countries which are also not so far away to zones exporting to Europe?  In Paraguay, worryingly, we read of "The reported identification of a simultaneous field infection with 2 serotypes" (ProMED moderator, 15 July 2003, where it should be noted that the moderator has recommended obtaining confirmation by the reference lab).

Lord Whitty says that "we have sufficient vaccine to deal with an outbreak of this strain. Clearly, more will be produced, but that is not to say that every strain of foot and mouth disease is covered by vaccine stocks in Britain or Europe."

How can he be sure that we have sufficient vaccine?  With regard to vaccine matching, "the virus is related to others for which vaccines are available. SAT2 vaccine reserves are kept but whether or not in sufficient amounts, depends on what circumstances arise." (personal email from David Paton, IAH-Pirbright, 15 July 2003).

Clearly, the question of vaccine sufficiency will depend on the circumstances of the entry and the spread of the virus before detection and before movement controls are in place (and thereafter on effectiveness of such controls, e.g. biosecurity). To say now that vaccine is sufficient suggests that Defra have modelled the distribution of size of outbreaks and populations to be vaccinated.  Has this been done?

I suggest that this current threat needs increased attention, and collaboration from and with all sectors.

Consider this warning: "The situation in the Middle East and in North Africa constitutes a threat to other regions of the world, especially Europe"  (H A Aidaros, the CVO of Egypt (in "Regional status and approach to control and eradication of foot and mouth disease in the Middle East and North Africa", Rev. sci. tech. Off. Int. epiz., 2002, 21, (3), 451-458)). 

And this reminder (also from Dr Aidaros):  "An FMD outbreak caused by type O occurred in North Africa in February 1999.  The disease was first reported in Algeria where it spread rapidly from the east to the west of the country.  Isolated outbreaks of the disease also occurred in Tunisia and Morocco." 

Have we done all we can to prevent the spread of this SAT 2 outbreak?  If we haven't, are we really prepared? 

Mary Marshall
Animal Health Policy Coordinator
European Livestock Alliance
16 July 2003

Libya: Foot and Mouth Disease

3.8 p.m.
Lord Plumb
asked Her Majesty's Government:
Following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Libya, whether they have completed their contingency plans for dealing with the possible threat of its spread to the United Kingdom.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, trade with Libya in foot and mouth-susceptible species and their products is not permitted. Following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Libya in May, the Government have reviewed their contingency arrangements. We are satisfied that the existing plans and precautions are sufficient for the relatively low threat from Libya. Officials maintain a high state of vigilance at our ports and airports.
Lord Plumb: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I am aware that the volume of products coming from Libya is minimal. However, there are plenty of people who come from Libya, and there are the countries surrounding Libya, which are equally concerned by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Is the Minister aware that there is a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Libya? It spread throughout the country for six weeks before it was reported to OIE -- the International Office of Epizootics -- and is, therefore, possibly spreading into surrounding countries. In those circumstances, will Defra therefore alert the livestock producers throughout the European Union because the border countries are not far from the areas where foot and mouth disease is spreading? What steps have been taken at ports of entry to increase detection of illegal imports from Libya or neighbouring countries with a special warning to tourists? I accept that we are not importing from Libya but plenty of products come through those countries. Will extra surveillance be instituted and targeted where risks are highest? Bearing in mind --
Noble Lords: Question!
15 Jul 2003 : Column 767
Lord Plumb:
My Lords, I just want to say that the confusion which arose in our outbreak is of great concern. Therefore, let us not be complacent and prepare for any possibility, recognising the threat that exists in those countries.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is no doubt that the Government take seriously any threat of foot and mouth disease. There has been no instance of the disease spreading beyond Libya, but it is important that the operational requirements at ports and airports -- both EU and UK -- take account of the fact that there is an outbreak in Libya. Without going into detail, undoubtedly that will inform the priorities of those authorities at ports and airports. As the noble Lord recognises, the import of livestock and products from Libya has been banned for many years.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said about illegal imports? Illegal imports of meat are coming from all over the place and are not always intercepted. What strain of foot and mouth is rampant in Libya at the present time? What stocks of vaccine are present in the United Kingdom in case -- God forbid -- there is an outbreak here?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government certainly recognise the problem of illegal imports and the possibility that such illegal imports may be diseased. That is why we have allocated another #25 million to protection against illegal imports in this country. In terms of the strain of the disease, the virus in Libya is SAT 2 which has never been recorded in North Africa previously. We have stocks of that vaccine -- it is one of the eight strains that the UK keeps. It is also available from European sources.
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, my noble friend said that BSE has spread beyond the borders of Libya. The Minister said it has not. Who is right?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, perhaps I may correct the noble Baroness. We are talking about foot and mouth and not BSE. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, to say that there was a possibility of it spreading because it spread rapidly within Libya and therefore might go across the border. I said that there has been no incidence of foot and mouth in neighbouring countries to Libya. That is not to say that we should not be extremely vigilant should that happen.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, have extra discussions taken place since this outbreak occurred? What instructions have been given to port authorities with regard to illegal imports of meat? Secondly, the noble Lord said that we have enough vaccine. My understanding is that that is not so. There is not enough vaccine across the EU. Should there be another foot and mouth outbreak we would be back to slaughtering and not using vaccination, as this House recommended.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards vaccine, it would depend on what strain of foot and mouth occurred in
15 Jul 2003 : Column 768
Europe. But we have sufficient vaccine to deal with an outbreak of this strain. Clearly, more will be produced, but that is not to say that every strain of foot and mouth disease is covered by vaccine stocks in Britain or Europe.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, what specific steps have been taken to inform the public of the dangers of illegal import of meat? What penalties are available and will be applied?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as far as information to ordinary travelling members of the public is concerned -- as distinct from trade because there is no trade with Libya and therefore it does not arise in this case -- we have put out a substantial numbers of leaflets, posters and now in-flight videos to warn passengers from all destinations against bringing back, for personal or commercial use, meat from any destination or point of origin outside the EU. That message is being reinforced daily.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further -- he did not actually answer my question. If a foot and mouth outbreak occurred again in this country, is it the fact that vaccination would not be the first choice of priority and that slaughter still would be so?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the noble Baroness, who has sat through many of these debates, will recognise, the contingency plan, which we have established here and would be broadly followed by other EU countries, would see the slaughter of diseased animals and those immediately exposed. We would then, provided the vaccine was appropriate to the strain, consider as a first priority the use of preventive vaccination. It would not necessarily be appropriate in all circumstances, but that is the order of priority in the current contingency plan.