Mad Cow Danger In Polio Vaccine

(21 Oct 2000)

A polIo vaccine given to seven million people was recalled on Friday because of a feared link with mad cow disease.

The Department of Health desperately played down the risk that patients - most of them children - could have been infected since 1990 with CJD, the deadly human version of BSE.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson said: "I am advised that the risk of a person contracting the disease from this oral polio vaccine is incalculably small." He said he and his family had all had the vaccine and added: "Parents of children who've had vaccines in the past can be reassured that there is no major safety issue."

But with the BSE inquiry report due to be published on Thursday, distrust of official reassurances is high. Concern over the risks of contracting CJD from food has risen 17 points to 43 per cent in the past year, according to a survey out this week.

Public worries will be increased by the fact that Parliament has repeatedly been misinformed about the oral polio vaccine banned yesterday because it was based on UK-sourced bovine material. Such material was said to have been eradicated from all vaccines in 1989.

Only last March, Health Minister Yvette Cooper told Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker in the Commons: "I am advised that all vaccine manufacturers were contacted in 1989 and that they decided immediately to source their bovine materials outside the UK."

But it was alleged yesterday that the suspect vaccine had been sourced back to calf serum taken from a UK herd in 1986 - when BSE was first officially confirmed. Between 1989 and 1991, the vaccine was made by GlaxoWellcome, the pharmaceuticals giant. It wrote to the Medicines Control Agency in February 1989 saying it had switched to a non-UK source for bovine material.

The Daily Express was told by GlaxoWellcome last April: "All vaccines manufactured by Wellcome after 1989 used bovine material from New Zealand."

A Health Department spokesman said last night: "We clearly want to know why the company made inaccurate statements to the MCA."

The vaccine process was bought out by an unsuspecting purchaser, Medeva, in 1991. Until the start of this month Medeva was owned by a company called Celltech. It was Celltech who tracked the suspect source of the vaccine by sifting through GlaxoWellcome archives.

A Glaxo spokesman said he did not know what assurances, if any, had been given to Medeva. The latest CJD death toll is 77 and another seven people are believed to be dying from the disease. Estimates of the eventual scale of the epidemic vary from fewer than a hundred to many hundreds of thousands.

Public reaction to yesterday's announcement was one of dismay and anger. Karen Morrison, 29, of Bury, Greater Manchester, has just seen her two children Jamie-Lee, 10, and Jack, seven, have their polio boosters. "It is worrying," she said. "BSE develops over so long a time period, when do we stop being concerned?" David Herron, whose son Jamie, five, has had his polio vaccine and booster, said: "It makes me angry that a drug company can make a mistake like this. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with it."