THURSDAY APRIL 26 2001

Magnus Linklater

From the start, the Government has consistently got foot-and-mouth wrong

When the full, shoddy story is told about this Government's handling of the foot-and-mouth (FMD) epidemic, the curious incident of Professor Fred Brown will stand out. His name will not be mentioned. And that, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, is what is curious.

For Professor Brown is probably the world's leading expert on the disease. He was in Britain during the last major outbreak in 1967, helped to eradicate a smaller one on the Isle of Wight in 1981, was deputy director of the animal virus research unit at Pirbright, held the chair of virology at Yale University, and is now visiting scientist at one of the top testing laboratories in America. He was appointed OBE for services to microbiology in 1999. The CV is important, because it shows how valuable he might have been. Add to this a clear mind, a down-to-earth manner, and a Lancastrian ability to call a spade a spade, and his absence from the scene becomes inexplicable - he has yet to be consulted by any minister.

This week he was finally brought to Britain, not by the Government, but by two members of the public, Alicia and Bill Eykyn, who felt his voice should be heard. They arranged for him to meet fellow experts and to give a press conference in London, which he did on Tuesday. They did not manage to fix a visit to Downing Street, which is a pity because what Prof Brown told us was truly scandalous.

On March 9, four days before the Ministry of Agriculture announced its slaughter policy, he offered to supply a system that his laboratory had developed, which could test for FMD infection on site and produce accurate results within two hours. For sheep, in particular, where symptoms are hard to detect, it would indicate straightaway whether a flock was infected or not. The slaughter of healthy animals to create a disease-free barrier would be unnecessary. The testing kit was simple, cheap and effective. By any standards, it was a vital breakthrough. Used properly, it would have avoided the funeral pyres and the stinking piles of unburied animals that litter the countryside.

The scientists at MAFF, however, were not interested. They were "too busy", they said. "That saddened me a lot," said the professor mildly. "Why destroy innocent animals?" His view, cogently and clearly set out, was that the number of healthy animals slaughtered was a national disgrace. The policy was being pursued because MAFF had concluded, wrongly, that it was the only way to stop the spread of the disease and protect exports. The ministry had made the crucial error of equating the present outbreak with the last one in 1967-68, which mostly affected cattle and pigs. In this case, sheep were the principal victims, and could carry the virus for several weeks before showing symptoms. The disease was therefore out of control almost as soon as it was identified. Culling animals on contiguous farms achieved nothing but unnecessary suffering. The only way of slowing it would have been vaccination. Swiftly used, that would have brought the disease under control without any burning and burying.

However persuasive the argument, ministers seem incapable of advancing it in the face of intransigent opposition from farmers' unions and the food industry. And yet, as Prof Brown explained, their resistance is based on outdated science and raw prejudice. Vaccinated animals are perfectly safe for human consumption; their meat was consumed for 40 years with no ill-effects before the ban on vaccination was introduced in Europe in the early 1990s. Vaccinated cattle or sheep cannot, as some farmers fear, be carriers of the disease because the virus used in the vaccine is killed, and there is no risk of it spreading. Finally, vaccination was enormously effective in containing and eliminating the disease. "Vaccination is a success story," he said.

Alongside him, Dr Simon Barteling from The Netherlands, also immensely experienced in handling the disease, and a member of the commission that originally advised Europe to ban vaccination, said his view had changed because of recent scientific advances. The Dutch had vaccinated successfully and the EU was going to review the issue once the British epidemic was over.

"I always wondered why Britain refused to vaccinate," he said. Culling was not only uncivilised, but ineffective. He feared that the disease could remain dormant over the summer and return when weather conditions suited it in the autumn - at which time the whole ghastly business would presumably start again.

So what does one conclude? That these men are wrong? That they know less than the Government's own advisers? I don't think so. Last Saturday, in an extraordinary interview on Channel 4 News, Dr Paul Kitching, a senior researcher at the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright, Surrey, which advises the Government on FMD, admitted that the model the institute has been using to chart the spread of the disease has been based on faulty or inadequate data, because it had been using evidence from the 1967 outbreak. "If there isn't good data going into a model, one has to question the value of the data coming out," he said. Yet his institute has been the source of much of the information on which the slaughter policy has been predicated. Pirbright will have a lot to answer for if he is right.

So there you have it: the research, it seems, was wrong, the science was outdated, the slaughter unnecessary, the policy unethical, and the strategy ineffective. Apart from that, things seem to have been just fine.

magnus.linklater@virgin.net