A NEW LIVE test for BSE could be commercially available within 12 to 18 months, according to the company developing it.

Adrian Presbury, managing director of TSEnse Diagnostics, told FARMERS WEEKLY that while the test could currently be used on a small scale, it needed some further work on the analysis of results before it could be used on a larger scale.

“Currently the analysis of results needs, at the final stage, some human intervention. But we are working to develop a system whereby a computer can complete all the analysis.

“Once this is done, it should be a commercially viable proposition.”

The test, which detects differences in heart rate variability in infected animals, was developed after doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary studied heart rate variability in vCJD patients.

Infected animals can be spotted six months before they display classical signs of the disease, explained its inventor Chris Pomfrett.

“Although in trials we did detect differences in one animal nearly 18 months before it showed any symptoms.”

All the EU-validated post-mortem tests currently in use are only validated to detect the disease about one month before the animal develops symptoms, he added.

Completing the heart monitoring required by the test takes about five minutes and the reading is then analysed by a computer program, taking just a few seconds, with humans checking the final results, said Dr Pomfrett.

“Readings could be taken while animals are gathered for another purpose, such as hoof trimming, reducing the need to gather them specifically for the test.

The test appears unaffected by stress, as it measures the variability in the heart rate, rather than the pulse of the animal.”

The test should also be relatively cheap to undertake, with the heart monitoring stickers costing a few pence for each animal and the readings stored on the same memory format as digital cameras use.

While Mr Presbury was unable to give an exact cost for the test, he reckoned it would be significantly lower than the current post-mortem tests.

But the test may have a limited applicability in the UK, as the number of cases is declining year on year at a rate of about 40%, said National Beef Association chief executive Robert Forster.

Speeding up this decline by eliminating infected animals would be of little benefit, he reckoned.

“It‘s not really going to speed up the decline that much, what‘s the point?”

“However, it could benefit other countries, without the controls and traceability of the UK.”