Laboratory accused of spreading virus while working on vaccine

Western Daily press April 8, 2001

A FORMER Government scientist has claimed that the foot-and-mouth outbreak has been spread by a UK research laboratory that was working on a vaccine for the disease.

Dr Harash Narang, who worked at the Public Health Laboratory, accused the Institute for Animal Health, in Pirbright, Surrey, of unwittingly passing on the infection to farm animals.

The institute is the world reference laboratory for foot-and-mouth, and it has been carrying out research work on a vaccine.

Chris Bostock, the institute’s director, admitted the laboratory had been the source of a foot-and-mouth outbreak 40 years ago. But he called suggestions it could be responsible for the latest outbreak "outrageous".

He said, "All our work is done under strict security with very high containment. When the last outbreak occurred that was traced to this laboratory we didn’t understand as much as we do now, in terms of how the virus is spread."

Dr Narang believes the official explanation that foot-and-mouth was brought into the UK by infected meat from abroad is misleading.

He says the pan-Asiatic "0" type strain that has spread in Britain is not found abroad.

He said, "It’s much more likely to have started from a laboratory. They have been using animals at Pirbright, and saying they are contained, but it’s so easy for the virus to escape."

Dr Narang says the laboratory animals have been injected with small doses of the foot-and-mouth virus, in the hope they would develop antibodies and so be vaccinated.

He says the only way to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth is by injecting animals with the virus in a "dead form". This involves heating the vaccine to kill the virus before injecting it in the animal.

Problems only arise when animals are given the live form of the virus.

The National Farmers’ Union’s veterinary and public health adviser, Peter Rudman, said it was possible for the disease to spread from a laboratory where animals were being injected with the live virus.

"If there is an institute developing vaccines, by using a live vaccine then there is a possibility it could be spread from there," he said.

Dr Narang has written to Prime Minister Tony Blair to warn him that any vaccination programme should only use only the dead form of the virus. But some farmers have been told by the Ministry for Agriculture Fisheries and Food that any vaccination programme would use an attenuated or "almost dead" form of the virus.

Dr Narang says the attenuated virus is essentially live, and should not be used. He added, "When injected with the live virus as a vaccine cows can excrete the virus up to three years later."