Did scientists start foot and mouth plague?

Evening Chronicle  May 5 2001


Government scientists were carrying out secret experiments with potent foot and mouth vaccines before the outbreak of the disease in February.

The Chronicle has uncovered details of more than 30 different research projects at MAFF experimental sites up and down the country, including Northumberland.

Now independent scientists claim the original source of the epidemic could be one of the Government's own research laboratories.

And they say the disease may have spread from secret vaccine experiments in the North East up to two months before the outbreak was officially blamed on the Bobby Waugh's Heddon-on-the-Wall pig farm on in February.

Professor Chris Bostock, head of the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) said: "The Pan-Asian strain of the disease, which is responsible for the UK outbreak, has been isolated from countries like South Korea, South Africa and Taiwan.

"But it is unlikely that we will ever be able to establish the source of the disease."

A Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) spokesman said there was no evidence to link the outbreak to its own IAH laboratories.

But the Chronicle has discovered the IAH had been overseeing foot and mouth vaccine and virus experiments for years prior to the outbreak of the disease.

According to IAH documents these experiments were carried out at its HQ in Pirbright, Surrey and other experimental sites in the UK.

Two are identified at Norwich and Cambridge but other sites are known to exist in the North East.

Among 20 current foot and mouth disease experiments by the IAH are: * "Immune responses induced by foot and mouth disease vaccine." * "Matching properties of foot and mouth disease virus strains with those in field strains." * "Transmission of foot and mouth disease in sheep."

The International Vaccine Bank for Foot and Mouth Disease at Pirbright, Surrey stores "500,000 doses of high potency" vaccines for each of seven different varieties of the disease.

According to IAH documents the vaccines are "tested annually for stability and efficacy" in tissue cultures and in live animals.

Last night head of the IAH epidemiology section Dr Paul Kitching admitted: "We test vaccine here at Pirbright, this is done at least once a year to ensure the stability of the stored antigen."

Today scientists claimed the virus could have leaked from a MAFF experimental site in the North East and called on the Government to launch an immediate inquiry.

"This confirms what I have said all along," said Newcastle scientist Dr Harash Narang.

"There is no evidence at all to suggest this disease started in the pigs at Bobby Waugh's farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, as they claim."

MAFF last night admitted it had been carrying out experiments on the foot and mouth virus before the outbreak, but a spokesman claimed the suggestion the virus had escaped from a laboratory or experimental site was "highly unlikely".

"There is not a significant chance this theory is plausible, none of the labs has reported any escapes," he said.

"We haven't yet traced the definite source of the disease, but the oldest case we have found is still at the Heddon-on-the-Wall pig farm."

Last night Bobby Waugh said: "I know my farm was not to blame, I am waiting for MAFF to acknowledge that they got it wrong and clear my name."