22 December 2000

Its official:No BSE in British flock

THERE is absolutely no evidence that BSE has infected the national sheep flock, says one of the countrys leading virologists.

Hugh Reid, head of the virology division at the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh, says there is no sign of the disease having jumped species from cattle to sheep.

"There is, in fact, good evidence now to show that it has not happened," he adds.

The prospect of BSE in sheep hit the headlines again recently when, on the advice of the Food Standards Agency, the government put in place contingency plans that included the slaughter of the entire national flock if the disease were found to have jumped to sheep.

Dr Reid and his colleagues at Moredun are currently involved in a £1m study on various aspects of scrapie and BSE in sheep. And the team is hopeful that it will be further involved from next year once government decides how it is going to implement its national scrapie-eradication programme.

"There are now a lot of things that suggest that sheep do not have BSE," Dr Reid says.

He rejects Lord Philips conclusion in the BSE inquiry that a genetic mutation in one cow probably triggered the epidemic. No self-respecting scientist would give any credence to that idea at all, he suggests.

Sticking to the contaminated feed theory, Dr Reid points out that any compound feed offered to sheep would have been lower in protein than cattle rations. And meat and bonemeal would rarely have been used.

It was also unlikely that sheep would have been contaminated by eating the same rations as cattle, mainly because the high copper levels in cattle feed are toxic to sheep.

Commercial sheep are rarely kept for more than six years, so very few animals born before the ruminant feed ban was rigorously enforced from 1994 will still be alive. And most lambs are slaughtered at less than a year-old, minimising any potential risk to humans even further, adds Dr Reid.

In addition to these reasons, he says initial laboratory findings, where sheep have been deliberately infected with BSE, show that the disease manifests in sheep brains in exactly the same way as it does in those of infected cattle.

Although the trial has some way to go, the initial results would quash fears that BSE might have jumped to sheep and somehow behave differently and in a way that might be mistaken for scrapie.