Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 440-459)



  440. How long can a decision be delayed, on vaccination?
  (Professor King) Our advice was that vaccination was an option that should be moved on very quickly, when we gave our advice.

  441. Very quickly?
  (Professor King) Yes.

  442. Would there be any advantage in a voluntary vaccination scheme?
  (Professor King) I can see no advantage at all in a voluntary vaccination scheme; the uptake is likely to be too small to make it worthwhile, is it not? Certainly, we spoke to a large number of farmers who feel very strongly in favour of vaccination, I know.

  443. They have been on the radio; but, from what you are saying, I get the impression vaccination is now off the agenda, is that correct?
  (Professor King) Vaccination is still being kept as an option.

  Chairman: After that illuminating circular tour, now then, David Drew.

Mr Drew

  444. I am just intrigued at the famous 52 questions, although I seem to have 51 questions and I know it has been referred to as 50 questions before, from the NFU. Who has written the response to those questions; have you been involved in each one of those?
  (Professor King) No. I think the questions you are referring to are the National Farmers' Union questions that were put to MAFF, and the responses came from MAFF; we had some input into the responses but, essentially, that is a MAFF document and not an Office of Science and Technology document.

  445. But you are happy with those answers?
  (Professor King) Broadly.

  446. You have obviously talked to the NFU directly, as well as talked to MAFF?
  (Professor King) I think, broadly, those answers are basically factual; but you may ask me about specific answers.

  Chairman: We will not ask you to identify the ones that are not.

Mr Drew

  447. No, we will not ask you to identify which ones are not factual. Clearly, you have had this paradox, which I raised with Nick Brown on Monday, that, in the main, conventional farmers have argued the case against vaccination, whereas organic farmers, led by The Soil Association, have argued the case for vaccination. How would you argue with The Soil Association, on the basis that they would say, "Let's vaccinate; let's not just mess around with ring-vaccination, let's vaccinate all animals, that's by far the most sensible way to take it forward"? Indeed, Friends of the Earth, reading their material, would probably argue Government should have vaccinated well before there was any possibility of an outbreak?
  (Professor King) We respect the opinions of different groups of people. We put forward a view on the limited use of vaccination, and this is the only area where the science group felt it could advise on this, and, as Dr Donaldson said, we were absolutely unanimous, within the science group, on our advice. Having put that out, there are differing opinions out there. We are aware of the fact that vaccination raises issues amongst the public. We have given our best scientific advice.

  448. One of the things that I find very confusing is, you hear all these wonderful stories from elsewhere in the world; is there a vaccination policy out there which is a model, where animals are regularly vaccinated and we can see the epidemiological impact as well as the economic impact and have some evidence that we can get hold of, rather than apparently what we are trying to do, which is nail jelly on the ceiling, at the moment?
  (Professor King) Chairman, you have sitting in front of you the person that any country in the world would invite to advise them on this, and that is Dr Donaldson, so perhaps I should ask him to reply.
  (Dr Donaldson) I can sympathise, because the issue of vaccination is a complex one, and to get to grips with it requires an understanding of the different types of vaccine which exist, the response of different species, which are variable, and then the different vaccination strategies. But just to give you an example of where vaccination has been used successfully on a wide scale, we can look at the nearby continent of Europe. When it became possible, in the mid 1950s, to produce foot and mouth vaccine as a product on a mass scale, vaccination was introduced progressively. At that time, there were hundreds of thousands of outbreaks per year in Europe, hundreds of thousands. Over a period of about 15 years, mass vaccination, which was applied generally only to cattle on an annual basis, reduced the incidence down to hundreds of outbreaks per year, but, nevertheless, there was the continued occurrence of outbreaks, and that occurred by about the 1970s, or so. As the amount of infection became reduced, additional policies were brought in to try to make control more effective, and those generally consisted, in the event of an outbreak, of stamping out the infected animals and ring-vaccinating around it. The mass vaccination continued, that is prophylactic vaccination, year in, year out. But even with those policies, if I remember correctly, during the years about 1982 to when vaccination ceased, there were upwards of 2,000 outbreaks on the continent of Europe. So when I say that mass vaccination was successful, that is in relative terms; it brought the incidence of the disease down to a level where it became possible to bring in additional policies to eradicate the virus. Vaccination does not eliminate the virus; vaccinated animals remain susceptible to the virus, they can replicate it, they can shed it, they can infect other animals. It is only when you bring in additional policies, such as stamping out, movement control, disinfection, decontamination, that you are ever going to eliminate the virus itself. So if we were to apply mass vaccination in the United Kingdom, without the continuation of stamping out, I would suggest we would end up with an endemic situation. And even to bring in mass vaccination in the United Kingdom, as a means of controlling this epidemic, you would be talking about vaccinating upwards of 40 million animals per year.

  449. Can I contrast what we have done in this country with what is happening in The Netherlands, and I think it would be useful to get a scientific appreciation of what is happening in The Netherlands, because certainly the media led us to believe that The Netherlands was going along the vaccination route. I do not think they made it quite clear whether, as you said, they were going along what aspect of the vaccination route, and we now hear that, of course, they have got additional problems in The Netherlands and it was always the intention to cull out the animals they vaccinated. Can you just give us some comparison and contrasts, and perhaps Dr Donaldson would like to carry on, to see what we can learn from these different approaches?
  (Dr Donaldson) My understanding, and I have not been keeping as close an eye on The Netherlands as normally I would like to but I have been rather preoccupied with what is going on in this country, is that in The Netherlands they used vaccination at the beginning to try to dampen down the situation, and they got the agreement of the European Union to do that; but I understand, now, that they have also agreed that they will slaughter out the vaccinated animals. So they may have had some improvement as a result of it, but, the vaccinated animals, my information this morning is that those animals will be culled out; so it would be a very mixed blessing.
  (Dr Ferguson) There is a key point about when you use vaccination to control an epidemic; if you have only one or two cases, as they do in The Netherlands, you can use vaccination in that case; it is never as efficient as culling straightaway, but the total numbers requiring to be vaccinated are not necessarily that large. In the state we are in at the moment, if we wanted to use it—and certainly a few weeks ago—and if we viewed it as an alternative to culling, then the numbers of animals requiring to be vaccinated to control the epidemic at that stage would have been truly phenomenal, many more times than we would actually need to cull to control the epidemic.
  (Professor Woolhouse) And, just to add to that, not just vaccinated but vaccinated quickly, that is the difficulty.
  (Dr Ferguson) I think that's one of the things about the logistic difficulties of vaccination, and maybe the early information you got sent was about people considering vaccination as a means of controlling the epidemic in the state we were at the beginning of April, the end of March, as compared with vaccination to protect certain groups of animals. And the two situations are rather different, in terms of their logistical implications, at least.

  450. Can I take up the second of those points; so is there a case, for example, for the vaccination of rare breeds?
  (Professor King) Once again, we were asked to give advice on that, and our advice was that we could not see a particular situation for rare breeds where vaccination would be advisable. For example, if we look at the hefted sheep in Cumbria, the Herdwicks and the Swaledales, and so on, there is a problem associated with vaccinating animals and with the way the disease spreads in the animals; in sheep, the disease can be quite quiescent, as you have heard, but if sheep are placed under stress the disease can move quite rapidly to the infectious state.

Mr Mitchell

  451. Stress, like transport?
  (Professor King) Stress, like transport, stress like being taken to Longtown market, so you put a lot of sheep together in Longtown market and they become more susceptible to the disease; stress, such as taking Herdwick sheep from the fells, herding them together to vaccinate them, could itself be a cause for spreading the disease. So our advice, on the basis of this, was that biosecurity and surveillance was the best way of handling the problem with those sheep, with the hefted sheep. So the only case where we were ambivalent, where we were not absolutely clear, was with zoos, where we felt that in the case of zoos this should be up to the local manager, but we could not see that there was a threat posed by zoo animals to spreading the disease outwards, and nor could we see a threat from outside the zoo into the animals, either from people visiting the zoo or in other ways. So, in our advice, we came down with only one route for the use of vaccination.

Dr Turner

  452. Just a very quick one, on vaccination. Given the response I had earlier about the different strains, does vaccination have to target strains; if, in fact, you saw yourself trying to protect the country from what is a generic disease, would you have to have some sort of multi-vaccination programme?
  (Professor King) No, this is the `O' virus and the fact is that the vaccine that we have stored at the Pirbright Laboratory is aimed at that particular virus.

  453. I am asking the question whether a vaccination policy, because some people are saying we should have vaccinated, in fact, before we even got it, what do you vaccinate against, is the question we are asking?
  (Professor King) That is right; it is, in this sense, I believe, like influenza epidemics, where we get a different strain coming by every year and so our GPs have to wait until the last minute to find out what strain is coming before you get vaccinated. In this case, as Dr Donaldson said, there are seven different strains known of the foot and mouth virus.

  454. So, for example, in Europe then, what did they vaccinate against? I understood, and that was what I was slightly confused about, that Dr Donaldson was saying that there was a vaccination policy for many years in Europe; what were they vaccinating against?
  (Dr Donaldson) They vaccinated against the strains which they thought presented the greatest risk, it was generally a trivalent vaccine, so there were three strains in the vaccine at that time. Vaccination was eventually phased out in Europe between 1990 and 1991, because they wanted to have a unified policy across Europe, in anticipation of having the Single Market and free movement. So the two policies; the possibility of pan-vaccination across Europe, or no vaccination and the use of slaughter out was considered in the context of cost/benefit, and they elected for the non-vaccination policy and the control by stamping out, with the possibility, as has been used in Holland, of using emergency vaccination as an adjunct to stamping out. But, to go back to your question, yes, in this country, if vaccine were used it would be used with a strain appropriate to the field strain; there would then be a complication, that the vaccinated animals would be protected only against that strain, so if vaccinated animals developed disease you would have to ask the question, have they been infected with the strain that is now present, or have they been infected with a new and different strain. So it would complicate the situation very considerably.

Mr Drew

  455. Do we know what the long-term impact of a vaccination policy is on species; in as much that, clearly, if we are talking about vaccinating against foot and mouth, to go on to my other obsession, bovine TB, the long-term solution is seen to be developing a vaccine? Do we know what we do to animal species if we keep vaccinating over not just one generation but continual generations?
  (Dr Donaldson) I am not aware that there are any detrimental aspects to the continued vaccination of animals against foot and mouth disease. Some of the cattle on the continent of Europe were vaccinated right throughout their lifetime, up to the age of perhaps nine, ten years, and without any effects, that I am aware of.

Mr Borrow

  456. Ministers have made it clear this week that there is no method of disposal of carcasses which does not pose any threat to human health. What advice has your committee given to Ministers on the relative health dangers of different methods of disposal, and also the dangers of not disposing of animal carcasses in the first place?
  (Professor King) My response to your question is the following, that when I was asked to set up a committee, or a group, I set it up on the basis of looking for experts in foot and mouth disease, and the experts that are on the committee deal with that aspect only. The function of the Chief Scientific Adviser, as I see it, is to set up groups of this kind, on an ad hoc basis, to deal with crises. I have not seen fit to set up a separate group, nor, to be honest, have I had even a moment in my day when I could have done this, to deal with the issues that you have now raised, which are vital issues. But I am pleased to say that the Department of Health has handled everything in a very appropriate manner, and, of course, on CoBRA, I am present and I can give in my comments on that. There are very significant health issues that have to be considered, and those health issues are there whether you bury the animals or whether you burn the animals; and so, of course, that has been gone into in fine detail. I can discuss it, but really it has not been my function in this outbreak to look at those aspects.

  457. So the principal advice to Ministers, in that area, has come through the Department of Health, although you would be aware of that?
  (Professor King) The Department of Health and the Department of the Environment and the Environment Agency have all been very actively involved in that.

  458. Just touching on an unrelated issue, I think when we were raising issues with the Minister of Agriculture on Monday, there was an article in the paper over the weekend about deer possibly being infected with foot and mouth; at that time it was not confirmed. I wonder whether, (a) has there been any confirmation of wildlife infection, and, also, if it was shown that there was infection within the deer population, would that have any effect on the modelling that is being done in terms of projections for the future of the disease?
  (Professor King) Right; so there are two questions, and, the first, I would definitely turn to Dr Donaldson, because his laboratory has been doing the testing on those deer.
  (Dr Donaldson) Yesterday, I reviewed the situation in terms of what specimens we had received from deer, and they included some deer which had been killed on roads, others which had been found dead and others which were sampled as suspect cases. I do not remember the exact total, but it was somewhere in the region of 20 or 30 deer which had been sampled; none of them have been infected with foot and mouth disease, according to our tests. We have five, I think, specimens which are still under test, and so they are incomplete. There have been suggestions that the testing of deer presents some difficulty compared to other species, and I would like to refute that; there is absolutely no difference in specimens from a particular species when it comes to either isolation or identification of the virus. So the situation at the moment is, we have, I think it is, about five specimens still pending results, but up till now we have no positive identification of any cases in deer.
  (Professor King) I think it is worth commenting that there are also similar lesions possible on deer from other infections.
  (Dr Donaldson) Yes, that is correct. Deer, of course, can die for many reasons; foot and mouth, I should say, will kill young stock, including young deer, and foot and mouth disease virus will kill a broad range of young of different antelope species and will affect the adults of a range of antelope species. Impala, in South Africa, are not uncommonly infected; we have heard reports of saiga antelope, in Kazakhstan, having foot and mouth disease. I have been involved with cases in Israel of gazelle affected. We have done experimental work at Pirbright in the past with all five species of deer which are found in the United Kingdom, and they are susceptible. But, I repeat, we have no confirmed cases at the moment, and five or so are pending.

Mr Todd

  459. What are the risks associated with burning of carcasses for the transmission of the virus, through dispersal of it through the lifting of the virus into the air?
  (Professor King) Could I just respond initially by saying, this virus is sensitive to temperature and so, unlike prions, for example, the virus is destroyed at much lower temperatures. So I do not believe that this is a problem.
  (Dr Donaldson) With a number of agencies, we have been looking at this possibility, and today there will be discussions with the UK Met. Office and colleagues at Pirbright who are examining this possibility. We have also received samples taken from the air near funeral pyres, which we are testing at the moment for the presence of foot and mouth disease virus. So far, we have found no evidence of downwind dispersion of foot and mouth disease virus to cause outbreaks, but it is still under investigation and we are looking at all the aspects of it. The time that would worry us would be when a fire is just started, because that would be the time when there could possibly be the bursting of the vesicles, or the dissemination of virus from the surface of the animals, or from milk from infected animals. Thereafter, once the fire was burning effectively, I would suggest that the risk of dissemination from a pyre would be very low, if not zero; as Professor King has said, the temperatures would kill off the virus.

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