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Lab leak fears over Britain's foot and mouth outbreak
A sign preventing people from using a public footpath warns of the risk of foot and mouth disease infection near a farm area in Wanborough. The foot and mouth outbreak on a British farm was linked to a nearby laboratory Saturday, sparking fears of a leak at the animal research facility. (AFP/Carl de Souza)

Lab leak fears over Britain's foot and mouth outbreak

August 4, 2007

LONDON - The urgent probe into Britain's foot and mouth outbreak homed in on an animal research laboratory Sunday amid fears of a virus leak.

The environment ministry revealed Saturday the virus strain discovered on a farm near London was not normally found in animals and was similar to one being used at the Pirbright laboratory just a few miles (kilometres) away.

An immediate review was launched into bio-security arrangements at the lab, a European centre of animal disease testing, as countries across the continent and beyond took measures to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on Sunday to chair a fourth meeting of COBRA, the government's emergency contingencies committee called in times of national crisis.

Debby Reynolds, Britain's chief veterinary officer, insisted it was too early to conclude the lab was to blame as she stressed no further suspected outbreaks had tested positive.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said Saturday a strain resembling the one confirmed Friday on a farm in the county of Surrey was used in a vaccine batch manufactured last month.

However, it could not say that the laboratory was definitely the outbreak's source, which officials have been frantically hunting for in the hope of preventing a repeat of the devastating 2001 epidemic.

The foot and mouth virus can spread in a number of ways, including being carried several kilometres in the air and on the tyres of vehicles.

"The foot and mouth strain found in Surrey is not one currently known to be recently found in animals," Defra said in a statement.

"It is most similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and in vaccine production, including at the Pirbright site shared by the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Ltd, a pharmaceutical company.

"The present indications are that this strain is a 01 BFS67-like virus, isolated in the 1967 foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain.

"This strain is present at the IAH and was used in a batch manufactured in July 2007 by the Merial facility.

"This incident remains at an early stage. It is too soon to reach any firm conclusions. All potential sources of the virus will continue to be investigated."

If the laboratory was confirmed as the definite source of the outbreak, Reynolds refused to say whether that made it easier to prevent an epidemic from spreading nation-wide.

"It is really far too early to jump to any conclusions about the implication of this in terms of the spread of virus infection," she told Sky News television.

"These facilities, of course, contain dangerous viruses and have extremely clear procedures that need to be followed to prevent any particular problems developing and viruses escaping," she added.

An oval-shaped three-kilometre (1.7-mile) protection zone and a 10-kilometre surveillance zone is now in place around the affected farm and the laboratory.

Sixty cattle were slaughtered on the affected farm, as was a herd on an adajcent farm, due to their proximity.

Brown, who abandoned his holiday after one day to chair two COBRA meetings in London, has vowed to eradicate the disease in Britain.

He has already had to deal with attempted car bombings and severe floods since taking office on June 27.

Farmers fear the disease, which normally takes three to six days to manifest itself, could already be widespread.

Foot and mouth can cause long-term weight-loss in animals, reduced milk production in cows, blisters that lead to lameness, and in some cases death.

In line with European Union legislation, a national ban on moving sheep, cattle and pigs remains in place in an attempt to contain the virus. It passes easily between those animals, but is rarely contracted by humans.

The agriculture ministry told AFP it has voluntarily suspended the export of meat products, animal carcasses and milk. The EU said it would endorse the measures Monday.

A number of European countries announced precautionary checks on cattle, pigs and sheep as well as British livestock imports.

The emergency recalled the last foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, which cost Britain's economy an estimated eight billion pounds (16.3 billion dollars, 11.9 billion euros) and dealt a hammer blow to rural communities.

Between 6.5 and 10 million animals were slaughtered and torched on huge pyres, and the tourism and farming industries were pounded.

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