Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 420-439)

WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001

PROFESSOR DAVID KING, DR NEIL FERGUSON, DR ALEX DONALDSON AND PROFESSOR MARK WOOLHOUSE

  420. To conclude on this question, Chair; explicitly, what we were told was that, if a vet judged that the disease was present and slaughter also went ahead, even if the result was negative in a laboratory, that negative result was not necessarily reliable, and I am just wondering what percentage of confidence do you have in the outcome of those tests?
  (Dr Donaldson) I have to qualify what I have said by saying that we are dependent on both the quality and the suitability of the samples which are collected. We are the recipient laboratory, we would expect anyone investigating a suspected case to take the appropriate samples, to put them in the appropriate transport medium and to send them to us by optimal means. If that is done and we get the appropriate material, in an optimal condition, then the tests should identify whether the virus is present, whether the viral RNA is present, or, in the case of serum, whether there is antibody present.

  421. With greater than, say, 90 per cent confidence?
  (Dr Donaldson) Absolutely.

Dr Turner

  422. I just wanted to follow up on the question about the origins, if I could, in terms of the way the outbreak has been observed. Given the question which had been raised as to whether Heddon-on-the-Wall was the source, first of all, in observing the outbreak, would you have expected to have had evidence that it might not have been; and, if so, has there been any evidence that actually we may not have identified the source? Have I made that clear?
  (Dr Donaldson) Apart from the comment from Mr Todd about the sheep detected in France which might have antibody, which is still an open question, I have got no indication that there was any other possible source.

  423. My first question was, would you have expected to have seen indications in the way in which, would you have expected to have false trails and not be able to find locations? You pointed out that the early data was quite carefully carried out; would you have expected inconsistencies in that if it had been earlier than Heddon-on-the-Wall, was my question really?
  (Dr Donaldson) Yes, I think so, in the pattern of spread, yes.

  424. So you would have expected it, but have not observed it?
  (Dr Donaldson) I am not sure that I am the best person to answer that, I think it is more a question for MAFF because they are more aware of the field situation than I am.
  (Professor Woolhouse) I think the pattern and timing of the strain is consistent with an origin of Heddon-on-the-Wall; it does not, in itself, prove it, but it is consistent with it.

  425. And there is no sort of unexplained, question-mark data which make you think there might be something else to add to the conclusion?
  (Professor Woolhouse) I think not that any of us here are aware of, no.

  426. Can I ask, where was it in the world that this particular strain arose, on the last occasion?
  (Dr Donaldson) The last one where it has caused an outbreak was in the Republic of South Africa, in and around the Durban area; but that is not to say that there is any link, necessarily, between South Africa and the United Kingdom, because this particular strain has been circulating around the world since about 1990. The earliest strains in this particular group we found were in India and then they spread westwards, through the Middle East as far as Europe, and then they also spread eastwards, across China to countries in the Far East, including Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Eastern Russia. But there are many countries around the world which have poor surveillance for foot and mouth disease, in which the strain, indeed, may be present, but they have not collected samples and submitted them to us.

  427. One, very quick, final one, if I may. In talking about immunity, which Mr Öpik was referring to, is immunity to a specific strain of the virus, and, in which case, does it mean that even if you have immunity to one strain you might expect to find another strain appearing and actually once again being active?
  (Dr Donaldson) Yes, very much so. There are seven serotypes of foot and mouth disease, and immunisation with one serotype does not protect against the other six; and even within a serotype there is variation between the strains, such that vaccination or recovery from infection with one may not protect against another.

  Mr Mitchell: I was going to talk about vaccination, but just following up what George said, in the light of all these interesting ideas of where it could have come from, an article in Private Eye this week about the ban on South African meat imports being imposed rather late, is it your view, as scientists, that there should be—

  Chairman: It is not in The Guardian, is it?

Mr Mitchell

  428. It is in Private Eye . . . a full, public inquiry into the origins and spread of this disease afterwards?
  (Professor King) I think, certainly, we should have the best possible investigation into the origins, and whether or not it is an inquiry is entirely a political issue. I am here as a science adviser to look at the scientific origins and I think we would like to have a very full scientific investigation.

  Chairman: Nice try, Austin.

Mr Mitchell

  429. Thank you. Now let us move on to vaccination; because three weeks ago Dr Donaldson's presentation on vaccination stressed the very high cost of vaccination, and now you seem to be changing your advice on the desirability of vaccination. I thought scientific advice was bright, clear, burning and true; why are you wobbling around like politicians?
  (Professor King) Chairman, I am delighted to have this question, because one of the factors that I have had to learn, in all of this, is the need to speak with great clarity in front of the media, and then to hope. The answer to your question is that we have not changed our minds, I do not think, one bit, about the usefulness or otherwise of vaccination; and what was leaked to the press was a document that I think Dr Donaldson wrote, that the science committee had, and I would stand behind that document as very sound advice. So the answer to the question depends on the question being asked, and if you asked us would we use vaccination to control this epidemic, the answer, which is what was leaked to the press at that time, was "No, vaccination is not an option for controlling the epidemic." If you then come back to us and say, "Does vaccination have any role to play in this epidemic?" the answer, which we put forward very thoughtfully, by which I mean it gave us a lot of hours of consideration, was, "Yes, we can see a potential usefulness for vaccination." And that was aimed specifically at the two major hot spots, Cumbria in particular, possibly also Devon, where there were a large amount of cattle, particularly, being overwintered in sheds. And what we said, and it was specific advice, Mr Mitchell, was that if the cattle in sheds were vaccinated before they were let out of the sheds it could save a large number of cattle lives, precisely because the cattle would be let out into a highly infectious area. Now there is an advantage in having cattle in sheds, because the disease does not spread to them quite as easily as if they are free to roam; there is also an advantage because they are in a captive state it is easier to vaccinate them before you let them out of the sheds. We could see no other role for vaccination than that very specific role that I have just described to you. Now if you see that as a U-turn you may, but I do not.

  430. No; but your advice is, therefore, that there is a limited role for vaccination, in these particular circumstances. It is not an alternative to search and destroy, or, in other words, culling?
  (Professor King) Absolutely not, that is right. I could ask Dr Donaldson, if you like, to amplify on the reasons why it is not.

Chairman

  431. May I just clarify that question, because it is very important. I attended, along with many MPs, a seminar in Westminster Hall at which Dr Donaldson and an official from MAFF gave us a presentation, a lot of it was about vaccination; every single MP went away from that convinced that there were powerful arguments against vaccination, that the purpose of the seminar had been to tell us how difficult vaccination was as an option. Then, with respect, we hear from the Government, after a little while, that actually vaccination may be really quite close, and even in his evidence two days ago the Minister said simultaneously that vaccination was receding but there were very powerful arguments in favour of it. Now, we are confused, and we are anxious to know what your recommendation now is?
  (Professor King) Right. Chairman, political machinations are one thing, and then there is scientific advice. All I can repeat to you is that our scientific advice is that vaccination was not a clear, workable option for bringing this epidemic under control, in such a way that we did not end up with an endemic disease situation in Great Britain; and we are still saying that. And perhaps I could stop at that point, take a breath and then say, however, if we look at this one specific situation of cattle in sheds, where they have been overwintered, kept in sheds throughout the outbreak, before they are let out there is this option of vaccinating them, to save cattle, not to bring the epidemic under control. We were not recommending—and, let me say, my advice to the Prime Minister, which was dated 11 April, had two contingencies on the use of vaccination. The first was that the 24-/48-hour cull policy should not be threatened by the introduction of vaccination in any way; in other words, if vaccination took personnel away from the 24-/48-hour operation then it would not be a useful intervention. And, secondly, we said that it would require the acquiescence or agreement of the farmers; and the requirement of agreement from farmers is based really on two factors. One is the understanding we have that the vaccinating of animals requires knowledge of the animals themselves, that only the farmer can impart, and so what we needed was the co-operation of the farmer in the vaccination process; and, secondly, it was clear to us that going down the vaccination route was only going to be successful if a very significant percentage of the farmers went along with the policy. In other words, if we were going to vaccinate cattle in Cumbria it should be a very large percentage of those that were in sheds. So those two contingencies were clearly stated. Given the above, we said there is the option of using vaccination; it was never pushed by us as a very, very hard route, and subsequent to that my team had something like five hours of discussions with Ben Gill and his team and with the vets from around the country. I went up to Cumbria and discussed this with local farmers and with vets and the Farmers' Union up there; and, incidentally, perhaps I could also say that my science team have been out to the regions individually. We came back and then have left it really to the policy-makers again to decide what to do with that.

Mr Mitchell

  432. The arguments given though, the ones you have just given now, insufficient resources, need for consultation with the farmers, need for their consent, these are practical, political arguments, not scientific arguments, are they not? And the arguments given by Dr Donaldson, which conclude, in huge letters, "VERY HIGH COST", are basically European and economic, that is to say, severe restriction on exports, cessation of export of fresh and frozen meat, and single-pasteurised milk. Now these are, essentially, economic arguments, rather than scientific arguments?
  (Professor King) I am not going to disagree with that; but I think Dr Donaldson is burning to come in at this point.
  (Dr Donaldson) The science committee was unanimous in its opinion that, for the specific instance of protecting the housed dairy cattle and for saving the lives of something like 90,000 cattle, I think, in Cumbria, and a somewhat larger amount in Devon, against an unquantifiable but believed risk of contacting sheep on pasture, or, indeed, contaminated pasture, it would be worthwhile to vaccinate them, and this, I think, was the only vaccination strategy which this science group had considered and supported.

Chairman

  433. So, Dr Donaldson and Professor King, if in two hours the Prime Minister 'phoned you and said, "I've got Prime Minister's Questions this afternoon, and I am going to have to say whether I am proceeding with vaccination of cattle kept in" what you call "sheds," though I have never known a farmer who keeps cattle in sheds, funnily enough; what do you tell him? Do you say, "Prime Minister, we recommend that you tell the House of Commons, this afternoon, that you are going to vaccinate," in, say, Cumbria and Devon, or do you say, "We now believe the epidemic is on such a course that this is no longer the recommendation we make to you"?
  (Professor King) The recommendation we made on 11 April was based on the situation as it stood then; and, as I understand your question, you are now asking me what would be the recommendation today.

  434. No. The minute you get out of this room, somebody says, "Professor King, the PM wants you desperately on the 'phone," and that is the question, "Mr Campbell wants you on the 'phone;" what are you going to tell him?
  (Professor King) I am getting quite used to this situation, Chairman. At the present time, as you know, vaccination is still being held as an option, and ADAS has had a green light to prepare for vaccination, so, if a policy decision was made to vaccinate today, I believe implementation could be carried out within a few days. My advice previously was based on farmer co-operation, farmers had economic concerns that we are not, here, capable of answering, and those concerns are based on whatever European Union policy will be, in terms of vaccinated animals. Now I do not want to get into that, and nor will I be able to get into that. My advice would be based simply on where the epidemic is now.

  435. That is understood.
  (Professor King) And, on the basis of that, the urgency of vaccinating cattle in Cumbria has fallen away, for precisely the reason that Dr Ferguson gave earlier, that the epidemic, particularly in Cumbria, is falling away faster than we had anticipated, so that the extent of infectiousness that those cattle in sheds are faced with is rather less than we had anticipated at that time.

  436. So your advice would be, "Prime Minister, there may well be other considerations which you have to take into account, but, from the purely scientific opinion which you are seeking of me, my scientific advice to you would be that you should no longer contemplate vaccinating the housed or `about to go out' dairy cattle in Cumbria"?
  (Professor King) It is very kind of you to put the words in my mouth, but if I can—

  437. I am inviting you—as you have not given me yours quite yet in the way I want them, that is why I am trying to do it?
  (Professor King) I would not say it quite like that. I would say, as we stand at the moment, because I am not at all clear as to what will happen as the density of animals on the ground in Cumbria and in Devon increases; in other words, as we let those cattle out of the sheds, there may well be an increase in the number of infected premises. However, having said that, one of the things that we have learned is that, very unfortunately, we have had quite a significant number of infected premises reported where the only animals on the premises are cattle in sheds, and even where there are no animals left in neighbouring premises. So the answer, Chairman, is that we are learning as we proceed, perhaps not only about the infection but also about human involvement with their animals; there are a large number of complex issues here.

Mr Mitchell

  438. I think it is time I intervened and stopped this effort to cram the Chairman's words down your throat, substituting mine. Essentially, that is a political argument, and the Chairman should know that only decisions about Peter Mandelson are reached under that kind of particular imperative. But the question I was seeking to ask, from which we have got diverted, was that if these economic and European arguments apply earlier on against vaccination, they also apply to any vaccination scheme in specific areas, such as Cumbria, because then the reputation of the country, or the stock, are tainted by vaccination; so the economic imperatives, which Professor Donaldson put so highly earlier on, would still apply to a limited vaccination programme?
  (Professor King) The economic imperatives do apply, and this may well be the reason why we have not vaccinated the cattle in sheds. I think that the concern about the economic outturn is a concern of moving into an unknown. The farming community understands the cost of the cull, the outcome of the cull and what will happen when we are once again FMD free. The farming community is not clear, I would suggest, about what would happen if we go down the vaccination route. We have had discussions with retailers on the specific issue of the milk from vaccinated cows, the meat from vaccinated animals, and on both those issues the Food Standards Agency has also made a very clear statement since what you are reading to me was written, and so actually the authorities have moved the goal-posts a little on the issue. But I think the concerns of the farmers, as you are about to learn, are still ones of stepping into the unknown.

  439. Is there any way of estimating the scale of the increase in the number of cases you would expect? You seem to be, in a sense, undercutting the need for it, even in Cumbria. Is there any indication, therefore, on the scale of cases you would expect to see if cattle are turned out in Cumbria and Devon without vaccination?
  (Professor King) Let me first answer, and then ask Dr Ferguson to comment. The number of cases reported in the last two 24-hour periods was 13; we are seeing, amongst those 13, something like, if I can move from the English to the Scottish territory and see that as one hot spot, the Cumbrian/Dumfries/Galloway, then the largest proportion of those, I think 11 yesterday, came from that area, and within that group we are finding a large number of cattle in sheds being reported. Now the infectivity in Cumbria is seeming to hold up at the moment, I suspect it is because it is moving from sheep into cattle, and so we are already seeing this as a problem.


 
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