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Foot-and-mouth outbreak tied to vaccine lab

/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain’s health and safety agency said Tuesday there was a strong probability that a foot-and-mouth outbreak in southern England originated at a vaccine lab and was spread by human movement.

The outbreak was discovered on a farm just four miles from the Pirbright vaccine laboratory, which is shared by the government’s Institute for Animal Health, or IAH, and a private pharmaceutical company, Merial Animal Health, the British arm of Duluth, Ga.-based Merial Ltd.

There is a “real possibility” the disease was spread by human movement, and the possibility it was transmitted by air or floodwaters was “negligible,” the government’s Health and Safety Executive said in the report.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said in a statement the possibility that the strain had been released by human movement would be urgently investigated. Foot-and-mouth can be carried by wind and on the vehicles and clothes of people who come into contact with infected animals.

“This will involve further interviews with personnel at the site, I have asked for a further report on these investigations as soon as possible,” Benn said.

He said footpaths in the protection zone covering two infected farms would be closed immediately.

Scrambling to halt spread

A group of cows at a second farm was confirmed to have the disease Tuesday. Cranes piled cattle carcasses onto trucks and authorities slightly expanded the protection zone around a second farm, scrambling to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus to other herds in southern England.

Both farms, about 30 miles southwest of London, were within the initial two-mile radius protection zone set up Friday, Benn said.

News of a second confirmed outbreak fed fears of a repeat of scenes in 2001, when 7 million animals were culled and incinerated on pyres, devastating agriculture and rural tourism in Britain.

“We were starting to think this virus had been contained and maybe we were going to be getting back to normality in a few weeks,” Laurence Matthews, who owns the farm where the second infected herd grazed, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio Tuesday.

“Now this has set us back again and most farmers — and I’ve been speaking to a few — are very, very scared,” he said, adding that the infected cows belonged to a fellow farmer who used his land.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said a second report was expected as early as Wednesday.

“The work goes on to isolate, to contain, control and eradicate the disease,” Brown said after the initial report was published.

The health and safety agency said Merial should not immediately resume production, despite a pending government order for 300,000 doses of a strain-specific foot-and-mouth vaccine.

“Our assessment is that there is no reason to prevent the Institute for Animal Health from operating providing that all the usual biosecurity protocols are followed rigorously. In relation to Merial, we advise that further work be done before any operations involving live pathogens are restarted,” the health and safety agency’s chief executive Geoffrey Podger said.

Merial had previously said it found no evidence of a breach in biosecurity, and the IAH claimed a check of records found “limited use” of the virus in the past four weeks.

On Monday night, Merial announced it was temporarily resuming production of its foot-and-mouth disease vaccine to meet the order for 300,000 doses. It said it was maintaining a voluntary suspension of all other activities at Pirbright.

Roger Pride, who runs the farm near Godalming, southern England, where the first outbreak was confirmed, said Tuesday his staff realized there was a problem when they spotted the cattle were “off color and drooling.”

‘Shocked and devastated’

“For a moment, we couldn’t believe it. We were completely shocked and devastated,” he said. “It felt as if our whole world was turned upside-down.”

The containment process at the second farm seemed slow and laborious, as tractors, glimpsed from behind a thick row of trees, haphazardly piled carcasses. Once the pile was complete, a black crane grabbed the carcasses, one or two at a time, and slid them gently, but quickly, into a truck that would haul them off the premises

Britain’s Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds has said the strain found in the first herd matched samples taken during Britain’s 1967 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The strain had not been seen in animals for a long time — but was used to produce vaccines, she said.

Foot-and-mouth disease affects cloven-hoofed animals, including cows, sheep, pigs and goats, but does not typically affect humans.

The first herd of around 120 cows from a farm in Normandy, outside Guildford, was slaughtered Saturday after the virus was identified and confirmed in two animals, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said. It said a total of 199 cows have been culled.

Britain has banned the export of livestock, meat and milk — a decision endorsed by the European Commission.