Bioterrorism and the UK foot and mouth outbreak

warmwell has come across the article quoted below in Jane's Security Intelligence Review. It was published on February 9th 2001, before news of the FMD outbreak broke in Britain and long before the terrorist attacks in the US.

Although all such rumours have been laughed at, we consider the remote possibility of the FMD outbreak in the UK having been a result of bioterrorism.

The US agricultural sector: a new target for terrorism?

One somewhat surprising addition to the 2001 budget is a line-item for $39.8 million to be apportioned to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a federal body that has not in the past received much attention in US national security contingencies.

Its inclusion reflects a growing concern that the agricultural sector, which accounts for roughly one sixth of US GDP - more if related food industries and suppliers are factored in - may become the target of a future act of chemical or biological (CB) terrorism.

This concern has been generated by a growing realisation that CB attacks against livestock and the food chain are substantially easier and less risky to carry out than those directed at civilian targets.

Floyd Horn, the USDA's top administrator, has testified on the threat of 'agroterrorism' before several Senate and Congressional hearings in the last few years. He believes that "a biological attack is quite plausible". According to Horn, the agents for such an attack are readily available, and the economic consequences significant. Public confidence in the government would almost certainly be shattered by such an attack.

......biological attacks against livestock can be carried out in such a way that they imitate natural or common disease occurrences. This complicates accurate epidemiological investigation and greatly reduces risks to the perpetrators of possible detection.
(In the UK, the original source of infection has never been established. Attempts to blame Chinese restaurants backfired and resulted in both a public apology and compensation. Bobby Waugh, the pig farmer at Heddon in Northumberland, was an easier target since his farm was notoriously badly run according to many reports. Again, secrecy has been the order of the day. Farmers were forced to sign the Official Secrets Act and editors of the National newspapers were undoubtedly led into the paths of government righteousness, as was the BBC newsroom. Rumous of a terrorist attack by Saddam Hussein for example were discounted, but isolated virus was never allowed out of Pirbright - not even to Plum Island, for the inspection of their American colleagues)

In terms of personal risk, biological agroterrorism is also more attractive than experimenting with human viral or bacterial agents as virulent non-zoonotic diseases, such as hog cholera, rinderpest, African swine fever and foot and mouth disease (FMD), can always be used. ...

A successful bioattack against the US agricultural sector would undermine confidence in central government and encourage support for instate governance. Successfully releasing contagious agents against crops and livestock would cause people to lose confidence in the safety of food supply and could lead them to question the effectiveness of existing contingency planning against WMD in general.

People may begin to equate the ability to infect animals with an enhanced capacity to target humans, calling for greater emergency planning in major cities, more stockpiling of vaccines and increased surveillance of 'high-risk' groups (which has implications for civil liberties). Critics would almost certainly demand to know why the intelligence services failed to detect that an attack was imminent and why the agricultural sector was left exposed.

The combined effect would be to initiate a chain of socio-political reactions and events, which, if not carefully managed, could fundamentally alter the relationship between citizen and government at state and federal levels.

This statement, although it refers of course to the US, has implications for what happened in Britain. Had the outbreak led to widespread disgust and opposition - rather than, as happened, to these feelings of outrage being confined to a very small group - then the government would have lost control and power.

The actual mechanics of dealing with an act of agricultural bioterrorism could also generate widespread public criticism. Containing a major disease outbreak would almost certainly necessitate the slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals (the 1999 Hendra encephalitis epidemic in Malaysia, for instance, led to over 800,000 pigs being shot).

Actually culling large numbers of animals, despite being a scientifically justifiable way of containing viral and bacterial dissemination, would generate vigorous opposition from affected farmers and animal rights movements, particularly if such operations involved the destruction of high-risk but non-disease-showing livestock and wildlife.

Except that in Britain the killing of even millions of animals has NOT been widely and publicly criticised.
Why not?
Because the farmers had no voice since the NFU colluded with the government in the slaughter policy, refusing to consider vaccination.
Because the voice of animal rights protest was silenced owing to persuasive arguments that these animals would have been killed anyway, and " far kinder to allow them to be put down in their fields than transported live for hundreds of miles" and the widely held myth that this number of animals are killed for the food chain every month. This myth conveniently ignores the fact that many of these animals were breeding stock, rare breeds, hefted flocks and pets.
Because the RSPCA co operated with the government because of funding and the emotive - and lucrative - hunting issue. Because the harried farmers were too tired and depressed to counter the campaign of vilification orchestrated against them in sections of the media.

Roger Breeze, associate director of the USDA's Agriculture Research Service, says the fact that the USA has not experienced a major cattle or sheep epidemic in the era of television is extremely important in this regard, as it effectively means that "no visual point of reference has been available to prepare the public for the consequences of containing such an occurrence".
Television was a powerful factor to start with in the UK epidemic - but no acts of actual killing were shown so the queasy and the sensitive were easily able to turn away. Slaughtering took place well away from the public gaze behind high screens and public access denied when roads were closed. And after a while the television stations deemed that it was all stale news. The animals died in their thousands every week - and the public thought it was all over.

Even in the unlikely event that large-scale culling operations were accepted, the actual removal of carcasses would be just as challenging. The quickest and easiest way to dispose of contaminated animal waste is either by burying corpses in landfills covered with quicklime or by incinerating them in pits lined with burning tyres. However, utilising such methods in an ecologically 'friendly' manner is only feasible if a small number of bodies need to be dealt with. Burning thousands of carcasses with rubber tyres would create a huge, smouldering open fire, as well as a highly visible atmospheric pollution problem. Both would attract widespread criticism.

Mass burial is likely to be just as contentious, not least because of the risk it would pose to ground water supplies. It would also render large areas of land unuseable for many years (a particular concern to heavily urbanised states).

On the other hand, the longer officials prevaricate and leave diseased carcasses out in the open, the higher the probability that they will act as a source for future epidemic - an equally unacceptable outcome.

The chapter of incompetence and cover-up over disposal in the UK, the pyres that could be seen from outer space and the apocalyptic photographs of carcasses certainly bore out this part of the article. Disposal too became a secret to be hidden from the public. Bitter local resistance and argument went largely unpublicised. .....deliberate sabotage is traditionally not something health officials have actively looked for when investigating crop or animal disease outbreaks. The implication here is that more acts may have actually taken place than are known about. Animal and plant health officials in Washington concede this is a possibility, acknowledging that in most countries (including the USA) the tendency is to automatically assume that disease outbreaks are naturally occurring events. The inevitable consequence has been epidemiological investigations that seldom consider the possibility of deliberate pathogenic introduction. .......Colonel Robert Kadlec, a US Air Force biowarfare expert, has somewhat ominously concluded that: "Agroterror offers an adversary the means to wage a potentially subtle yet devastating form of warfare, one which would impact on the political, social and economic sectors of society and potentially threaten national survival itself."

Whatever the truth about the origins of the outbreak, the consequences for the British family farm have been catastrophic. Whether Maff/Defra were really working towards a target of a 40% reduction of stock - and couldn't believe their luck when FMD provided the perfect excuse - is still not proved. What were Pirbright's reasons for suppressing any equipment that could have brought a swift end to the outbreak? Or was Pirbright more sinned against than sinning? Certainly they found themselves sidelined almost as much as many others - no access to the MAFF/DEFRA database of test results, not allowed to participate in the stakeholders meetings and so on. The rejection of the US offer probably came from David King See EFRA Committee April 25 , possibly even above the heads of Donaldson or even Scudamore. However, Pirbright does seem to have been working against the clock to produce equipment of its own with commercial partners, equipment that will be hugely profitable.
Why did the NFU so violently oppose vaccination after Ben Gill had been in secret conclave with ministers and advisers? Above all, why was vaccine not employed within a week of the outbreak when it was obvious to all that thousands of animals all over the country could have been exposed to the virus?

Was there "an accident" involving a genetically modified hybrid virus from experiments taking place at Pirbright in November 2000?

Whatever the truth or truths about the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, for many it will rank as one of the most disgraceful and callous chapters of modern times. By means of this control policy and the extraordinary movement restrictions following it, family farmers have been cut off from their incomes. Siren voices have called on them to give in and give up. Many have responded in weary acquiescence. And the big business "farming as agribusiness industry" players, with their links to the drug companies and the genetic modification industries, wait in the wings, with the blessing of the British Government, to move onto the land thus vacated.

Terrorism? Certainly - but probably not from any foreign country.

See also "Fairy Story"

See also email from Sam containing worrying possible answers to worrying questions