I come from a farming background and can understand why the farming community is appalled at the prospect that an organisation supposed to protect them might be the source of foot-and-mouth disease.
For us at the Institute for Animal Health this is particularly poignant because we are committed to eradicating diseases of livestock and their often brutal impacts.
We also provide a 24/7, 365-days-a-year F&M diagnostic service for DEFRA. During the current outbreak alone, we have worked round the clock on more than a thousand suspect samples. We now deliver results within six hours – three times quicker than in 2001 – and in such fine detail that we quickly showed the virus on the first farm as a 01BFS67-like strain.
This strain has not caused disease in Europe since 1967 and understandably points the finger of suspicion at Pirbright.
At IAH we use very small amounts of 01BFS67 as a reference strain in research – less than 10 millilitres during the at-risk period for the current outbreak.
The 01BFS67-based vaccine produced by Merial at Pirbright remains highly relevant to the “real world”, especially in South America, where it is used to protect against O-serotype F&M viruses. Making vaccines involves producing large quantities of virus and, in the at-risk period, the Health and Safety Executive reported that Merial produced around one million times more live virus than IAH.
IAH handles exotic viruses under stringent biosecurity arrangements.
On arrival, staff must leave all day-clothing and possessions in a changing room and dress in a plain white uniform before entering laboratories. If they are working with F&M they put on more protective clothing, including gloves and jackets, and handle the virus within a cabinet. Before leaving, staff leave their clothes in the biosecure “inside zone”, then strip and shower in an “intermediate zone” for a minimum of three minutes before they are allowed to leave and then dress again in their own clothes in the “outer zone”. Any breach of these stringent procedures would result in severe disciplinary action.
All of us at IAH are working flat-out to provide the science services that underpin the government’s response to stamp out the current F&M outbreak. Together with the farming community, we hope the outbreak has been controlled.