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Richard North (Dr)
Research Director EDD (European Parliament)
19 July 2001
Professor Roy Anderson and vaccinationThe start of the current foot and mouth epidemic was not, as the government would have us believe, in February. The probable start was some time in September.
It is something of a curious coincidence, therefore, that in the period immediately prior to this month, there had been running synthetic FMD vaccine trials in four countries: the U.S. Taiwan, China and the United Kingdom. Since this involved injecting pigs with the vaccine and then exposing them to live FMD virus, somewhere in the UK prior to the start of the FMD epidemic, pigs were being deliberately infected with FMD virus.
It is even more curious that the UK trial was reportedly due to finish in September 2000, just about the time that FMD probably started. However, few more details are known about the trial. Of the two countries which opted to sign a secrecy agreement, the UK was one. China was the other. Nevertheless, it is known that a firm called United Biomedical Inc produced the vaccine, and the UK trial was carried out by an un-named 'partner'. Although this 'partner' is un-named, UBI has licensing agreements on other vaccines with Merial UK, which is the sole FMD vaccine manufacturer in the UK.
After the first case was confirmed on February 20, the Ministry of Agriculture enlisted its own epidemiologist, Prof John Wilesmith of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, a veteran of BSE, to model the consequences.
At his disposal was a 'decision support system' called EpiMAN, which can help predict the course of an epidemic, and develop strategy, using a tool called Interspread to model its spread across the country. But this system was never used in action, owing to the intervention of an additional curiosity, Professor Roy Anderson.
The singular oddity here is how quickly he became involved in the management of the epidemic, as his background is primarily in human health. As head of the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College Medical School - and formerly head of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Epidemiology of Infectious Disease at Oxford University - his main interests have been human diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, mainly from a global perspective. He had also taken a close interest in measles, mumps and rubella vaccination.
However, his team had taken an interest in BSE, while Anderson had got himself appointed to the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), although his input - and public pronouncements - remain controversial. As well as that, his interests included being a director and 30 percent shareholder of the International Biomedical and Health Sciences Consortium, and he is a scientific consultant to Abbott Pharmaceuticals, a major US company. Additionally, he is consultant to SKS Scientific (presumably Smith Kline Beecham), and has links with the Hamburg Institute of Tropical Scientific Advisory Board Medicine
One of the members of Prof. Anderson's research team was a young lady called Dr Christl Donnelly, a statistician, and, in yet another curious coincidence, she just happened to publish in October 2000 in Veterinary Science an analytical paper on the 1967 foot and mouth epidemic - a month or so after foot and mouth disease for real probably struck this country. Why Donnelly should have so suddenly developed an interest in an animal disease, has not been explained.
This notwithstanding, the paper effectively staked a claim for Anderson's team as having some expertise in FMD. And when the current FMD epidemic was finally detected in February, Anderson was extremely quick off the mark. By the end of the month, unasked and uninvited, he had assembled his team at Imperial College and had it working up computer models of the epidemic. By 6 March, his team was ready to make a presentation of its 'findings'.
Yet another curiosity intervened here as the presentation was not made to MAFF - nor veterinary officials - but to Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency, who had arranged a meeting for that purpose.
Quite why Krebs should have been taking such an interest in FMD has also not been explained but it is germane to note that his responsibility is for food safety. FMD, being an animal disease, was entirely outside his remit yet, for some reason, no-one from MAFF - which was responsible for controlling the disease - was invited to the meeting.
Here, a whole raft of coincidences intervene. Firstly, Anderson and Krebs were not strangers. Both had worked in the Zoology Department in Oxford University. Secondly, both were Fellows of the Royal Society. Thirdly, Anderson had worked closely with another Oxford scientist, Professor Sir Robert May, currently President of the Royal Society and previous Govt Chief Scientist, and had collaborated with him in producing two text books on epidemiology. Fourth, May and Krebs were not exactly strangers. They had both worked in the same Oxford University department and both had been awarded Royal Society Research Professorships. Finally, on this highly buoyant raft, Anderson and Krebs were widely seen as May's proteges.
Whatever the links, the Krebs-Anderson axis evidently had enough clout to prise data on the FMD epidemic from MAFF, which they obtained on 14 March. Then, on 23 March 2001, a mere month after the epidemic had been detected by MAFF, Krebs managed to arrange another meeting. This time MAFF was invited, in the form of Jim Scudamore, Chief Veterinary Officer. They heard presentations from Neil Ferguson and colleagues from Anderson's team, from Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, and opinions from experts at the Institute of Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency.
Also present at the meeting was Professor David King, the current Chief Scientific Adviser, alumni of Cambridge University and successor to Sir Robert May. Needless to say, King - whose speciality is 'surface chemistry' - was a member of the Royal Society. King almost certainly owed his position as Chief Scientist to May, as did Krebs his appointment as head of the Food Standards Agency.
If Anderson was after favours - such as a 'slice of the action' on FMD - he certainly knew the right people; and possibly had the right 'leverage'. Not least of this might have been the curious episode of the government's decision to award the UK's biggest science contract in 15 years to an Oxford laboratory at the expense of the North-West. This was the £550million Synchrotron project which was pioneered and developed by the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire.
As Daresbury had been the field leader, it was the obvious location for the new project - particularly as it is the only major northern-based publicly funded research institute. But the project was part-funded by the Wellcome Trust. Sir Robert May, then the Government's chief scientific adviser, wanted the project to go to Oxford. Anderson, his close associate and colleague, at the time just happened to be a Trustee at the Wellcome Trust. And it was the Wellcome Trust that was widely regarded as the driving force behind the choice of Oxford.
Whatever might have passed, Anderson got his way on FMD. He was soon effectively to take over the direction of the control policy, based on computer projections produced by his team - despite Dr Paul Kitching at the Animal Health Institute telling Channel 4 News that the new projections were almost worthless. He also pointed out how conveniently they had been adjusted when the favoured election date was moved from May to June. But the government had a perfect defence to the charge of fiddling the figures: its methods had been devised by the independent expert Professor Anderson, a man of unimpeachable reputation. It was a point stressed by Prof. David King, at a press conference on 3 May.
That 'reputation' however, was something less than unimpeachable. January 1999, Anderson was suspended on full pay in while the university authorities investigated complaints filed by his colleague Dr Sunetra Gupta - whom he had accused, publicly and falsely, of gaining her post at Oxford by sleeping with another professor in the zoology department. Dr Karen Day, a member of the panel which appointed Dr Gupta, also complained of his 'offensive and intimidatory' behaviour. Anderson was reinstated two months later after agreeing to apologise in writing to those concerned.
This failed to satisfy Dr Gupta, who continued to press for a public retraction. A meeting attended by 26 readers, lecturers and professors in the zoology department passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in Professor Anderson. Meanwhile, an inquiry by the university into the research centre in the zoology department criticised his 'autocratic' management style: conditions at the centre were 'intolerable' and divisions ran 'very deep'.
A separate financial audit then found that Anderson had not disclosed to either the university or to the Wellcome Trust, which largely financed his research centre, that he was a director and shareholder of International Biomedical and Health Sciences Consortium, a private consultancy firm which had close financial links with the centre. As director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, he had applied for over £4 million of research grants from Wellcome, while also being a Trustee of the Wellcome Trust itself, which awarded the grants.
'There was a degree of naivety on his part', a Wellcome spokesman said. 'He should have been aware of the procedures to be followed. The research centre was also receiving commercial grants which were not declared, in breach of the trust's regulations'.
On 9 May 2000, Anderson resigned his Oxford post and announced that he was taking up a chair at Imperial College. A month later, he finally gave Dr Gupta the formal apology she wanted, admitting that there had been 'no foundation in truth whatsoever' in his comments. He paid her legal costs plus damages of £l,000, which she donated to Save the Children. As she told the Daily Telegraph last June: "I felt nobody should be allowed to get away with this and remain in a position where they are making judgements about people's lives... I felt there was no other choice, no other way to protect myself or other people'.
Anderson also resigned from his seat on the Board of Trustees for the Wellcome Trust. His departure from was announced by Wellcome on 11 March 2000 in somewhat opaque terms, stating that, 'in view of recent events at the University of Oxford', his resignation 'would be in the best interests of both the Trust and himself'.
Given this man's impeccable background, it is curious to say the least that he should still be treated with such authority. But what is even more curious is his stance on vaccination. His view, articulated by The Daily Telegraph, was that: 'Immunisation would not help much because it allows the disease to spread from an infected farm, given the inevitable delay that would occur between confirmation and vaccination'.
This was from a man who, despite strong concern about MMR, was one of the prime advocates of routine vaccination, a man who works for major pharmaceutical companies which produce most of the world's vaccines. Is there any connection between Anderson and the vaccine trial on Foot and Mouth? Did something go wrong? Is this why he was so quick off the mark and so keen to have a slice of the action? I think we should be told.
FMD - UPDATE 17Richard North (Dr)
Research Director EDD (European Parliament) 22 June 2001
What price an inquiry?It is a measure of the profound anger felt by rural communities over the government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis that, at a recent public meeting in Cumbria, many of the cars parked outside the meeting hall bore stickers which, at first sight, looked like official badges of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF).
Only on closer inspection, however, was it apparent that the stickers were actually proclaiming 'Ministry of Arseholes F***ing Farming'. When some of the drivers turned out to be smart, middle-aged, middle-class women, who would otherwise never so much as dreamed of uttering a profanity, the very fact of so stark a message bore eloquent testimony to the devastation wrought by this now-departed ministry.
But, if the contempt for the MAFF is one thing, that contempt is now extending to the newly elected government as a whole and, in particular, to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and its new boss, Mrs Margaret Beckett, who yesterday brushed aside calls for an independent public inquiry on the government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis.
Not least, comparisons are being made with the same government's enthusiasm in 1997 for a wide-ranging public inquiry into BSE, for which no expense was spared. By the time Inquiry Chairman Lord Phillips of Worth Maltravers had delivered his sixteen-volume report in October 2000, the costs of the inquiry were estimated at £27 million.
And while BSE was indeed a major crisis, with serious implications for both farming and the nation, its total costs, in the order of £5 billion, pale into insignificance compared with the £20 billion which the Institute of Directors estimates that the foot and mouth epidemic will have cost the nation, should it run into the autumn - which it shows every sign of doing.
In purely economic terms, this is a disaster: the loss to the economy translates into something like an £8 billion loss to the Revenue, which seriously curtails Prime Minister Tony Blair's manifesto commitment to improve public services. Small wonder he looked sombre during the Queen's Speech.
He must know that his room for manoeuvre is now very limited as the money which could have been spent on better hospitals, more policemen and more teachers has already been spent on the obscene funeral pyres and stinking pits full of the rotting corpses of an estimated six million animals.
But, if foot and mouth is an economic issue, it is also - according to many scientists and informed commentators - one of the most glaring examples of government maladministration in modern history. In fact, it is very hard to think of any other example where a government agency has performed so badly, causing such great disruption and agony, to so little effect at such enormous expense. On those grounds alone, a public inquiry is essential.
These issues apart, there are many other serious questions which remain to be answered. For instance, although the former MAFF chooses to believe that the epidemic started in mid-February at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, there is now a massive stack of evidence which indicates that the epidemic started much earlier - perhaps as early as September - and smouldered unnoticed over the winter until it erupted into the public consciousness.
There are also the unconfirmed but persistent rumours that MAFF knew of, or suspected that foot and mouth was in the country much earlier than it has so far admitted, not least because of its inquiries in December and January about the availability of railway sleepers for funeral pyres. The former Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, has dismissed such reports as 'urban myths' but there is far too much smoke for there not to be any fire. Only an independent inquiry could get to the bottom of this.
Then there is the extraordinary debacle over vaccination. First it was on the agenda, then it was off, and then it was back on again until, on 23 April, Nick Brown declared to incredulous MPs at the Commons Agriculture Select Committee that, because the number of outbreaks was declining, vaccination would not be necessary.
Yet, this is after the UK had applied for, and on the 30th March had been given, permission from the EU to vaccinate animals in Devon and Cumbria. But what does not seem to be have been reported at all is that, on 24 April - a day after Brown had ruled out vaccination - the EU granted permission for the UK to extend the programme into Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset.
At best it looks as if one part of government did not know what the other was doing but, on the other hand, more sinister motives may have been at play. For some time now, rumours have been flashing through the country that some dark deal has been agreed with Brussels to the effect that we will destroy our animals and turn our countryside into 'theme parks' - in return for who knows what.
If this seems a little far-fetched, someone must explain why, against the advice of all the senior government scientists with direct experience of foot and mouth disease, the government chose to extend the so-called 'contiguous cull' areas from two to three kilometres, so pulling in several million more animals for slaughter than even the most hardened 'kill 'em all' zealot believed necessary.
Here, some of the explanation must lie in the government's choice of 'front man' to head up the government's scientific team, Professor David King, a career chemist who lists his speciality as 'surface materials'. How is it that the government chose to rely on a scientist completely unqualified for the role, with absolutely no experience whatsoever of managing a measles outbreak in a nursery, much less the biggest foot and mouth epidemic the world has ever known?
And therein lies a central question. After Tony Blair had already postponed his election from the 3rd May, it was an open secret that the next available date was 7th June. How so very convenient it was that, just as the epidemic seemed to be totally out of control, the figures started miraculously declining, so much so that Prof. King was, on the 23rd April, able confidently to predict that the epidemic would come skidding to a halt on - guess what - the 7th June. If the figures were not massaged for entirely political reasons, then the coincidence is something that only a truly independent inquiry will be able to explain.
By any measure, that completely independent public inquiry is necessary - not only to explain why the government has managed to 'blow' £20 billion, wiped out six million animals and torn the heart out of the rural economy. It must also explain why the manifest incompetence of MAFF has allowed to put at risk the core projects dear to the heart of the whole country - hospitals, schools and the police. And Blair, himself, having taken charge of the epidemic in late April, must explain his own role.
But, more to the point, if this government found a public inquiry was necessary for BSE, it cannot argue otherwise for foot and mouth. There are too many questions that demand answers. What we now need is not so much 'joined-up' as 'grown-up' government. In the BSE Inquiry, New Labour saw the opportunity for 'Tory-bashing'. With foot and mouth disease, it only has itself to blame. Is Tony Blair man enough to put his record to the test?