Most Strategic Security Blog readers are probably already aware of the recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the UK, but I thought it might be useful to post summary information on what we know to date. In short, it appears as if the virus was found on two farms, that the likely source of the virus was a research and vaccine production facility located nearby, and that there will be hell to pay if it is determined that someone at that facility is responsible for the outbreak and subsequent shut down of beef exports from the UK. The good news is that the response to this outbreak was vastly improved from a 2001 outbreak, which resulted in close to 7 million animals being destroyed. The bad news is that it was probably released from a laboratory and will no doubt spark new concerns about animal disease research.
An out break of FMD was confirmed on August 3rd on a farm in Surrey, according to the British Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). A second case was found at a nearby farm, but tests at two other farms were negative. The owner of the Woolford Farm, where the first disease outbreak was found, reported symptoms to his veterinarian and then DEFRA on the 2nd. DEFRA said in a statement that the strain is a 01 BFS67-like virus, isolated in the 1967 FMD outbreak in the UK. That strain was being used this past July for vaccine production at a nearby facility run by Merial Animal Health, which is jointly owned by Merck and French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis.
An August 9th Associated Press story noted that a 2001 report on the lab had called some of the facilities “shabby,” but no biosecurity concerns were raised.
On August 7th, the British Health & Safety Executive released a preliminary report of an investigation of the nearby Pirbright laboratory facilities that houses two separate groups, Merial Animal Health Ltd and the Institute for Animal Health. The investigators confirmed that the FMD strain found on the farm was being worked on by both organizations during the period between 14 and 25 July 2007. Of note was the fact that the Merial site was producing large batches of virus (10,000 liters) during that period.
The report concluded that “The indications are that there is a strong probability that the FMDV strain involved in the farm outbreak originated from the IAH or the Merial sites.” However, the laboratory facility is 5 miles away from the farms where the outbreak occurred. The investigators found no evidence that there was an airborne release of virus or large spill. They also said that “preliminary investigations into the possibility of whether surface water from flooding from the site could have reached and contaminated the affected farm have indicated that this was negligible due to the distance, topography and direction of flow.”
Currently it is hypothesized that the virus was accidentally or purposefully transferred from the facility with the aid of someone at the facility. Detailed sequence analysis of the laboratory strains and the recovered virus from the outbreak may be able to show whether they are identical (a smoking gun) or whether the location of the outbreak and strain identity were merely coincidence.
UK Chief Veterinary Officer, Debby Reynolds told reporters earlier today that there were no plans to vaccinate livestock to control spread of the disease. Vaccination is part of the UK contingency plan if other methods to control spread including quarantine and culling are ineffective. “Vaccination is used if it is demonstrated that steps additional to slaughter policy may be required to eradicate disease,” she said. To date, 576 animals have been culled.
Also earlier today, Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated; “We have restricted the disease to a limited area of this country…The risk of it spreading out of these areas is low, if not negligible.”
The US has been free of foot and mouth disease since 1929 and it is illegal for anyone to possess the virus outside of a single research laboratory on Plum Island, New York. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is located off the north fork of Long Island and is operated by the USDA and the Department of Homeland Security.