Latest foot and mouth leak puts government’s credibility in doubt

Government competence is being questioned, following another leak of live foot and mouth virus from the source of the summer outbreak at Pirbright.

But, the knock-on implications for the production of bluetongue vaccine could prove to be a double blow for the livestock industry, according to experts. 

News of the ‘probable’ release from the Merial laboratory in Surrey was released in a written statement to the House of Commons by DEFRA secretary, Hilary Benn, yesterday.

Peter Ainsworth, Conservative shadow rural affairs spokesman, heavily criticised the governments handling of the incident and in a letter urged Mr Benn to answer a series of questions.

“News of another leak of foot and mouth virus at the government licensed Pirbright site will shock the farming community, the British science community and the public. Hilary Benn now has some very urgent questions to answer.”

“Today (Thursday 22 November) we discover that just days after the Government approved renewed production there has been a further outbreak. This government’s credibility is rapidly falling apart,” said Mr Ainsworth.

Questions posed in Mr Ainsworth’s letter include:

• “Is there any link between the leaking pipe revealed and the original outbreak?

• “Why weren’t technical problems with the functionnning of the valve identified by inspectors prioer to the restoration of the SAPO licence?”

• “Why did the government take two days to make a public statement about this breach of security?”

Speaking on BBC’s Farming today this morning (Thursday 23 November), Sheep Veterinary Association president Paul Roger said that whilst everyone’s initial reaction to the outbreak was one of horror, the fact that Merial had been ‘very, very quick’ on finding faults in the system was reassuring.

“While it is far from reassuring that the leak has occurred, I am quite reassured they have found the leak before the virus escaped and that containment within the facility is rather more certain than it was in the summer.”  

Rather more worryingly are the knock-on implications of the revocation of Merial’s Specified Animal Pathogens (SAPO) licence, preventing the company to produce and handle with live vaccines.

“The more serious side of the coin is bluetongue vaccine production. We need a vaccine in place before May or June next year before the start of the midge season.”

“Merial has a record of producing killed vaccine already for serotypes 2 and 4. We hope for a limited downtime and for things to be up and running in the next couple of weeks.”