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Week-in-review editorial: foot and mouth outbreak

The UK foot and mouth outbreak in the county of Surrey has dominated the headlines and a government investigation is focusing on the bio-security procedures of government-run and a privately owned animal health laboratories

This week the UK foot and mouth outbreak in the county of Surrey has dominated the headlines. The virus responsible has so far been found on three farms located within the perimeter zone imposed around the Pirbright laboratory site, which is home to Merial Animal Health and the government-run Institute of Animal Health (IAH).

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) investigation stated that release by human movement must be considered a real possibility. It also suggested that waterborne release onto the site was possibility, but the distance from Pirbright to the infected farms was too great for infection to occur in this way. The investigation hopes to determine which laboratory was responsible for the outbreak. Both the IAH and Merial have denied culpability.

Merial, which is co-owned by US-based pharmaceutical company Merck & Co and France's largest pharmaceutical entity sanofi-aventis, conducts large scale production of the 01FS67 foot and mouth virus strain and processes approximately 10,000 litres. The IAH conduct small scale experiments using less than 10ml.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) investigation stated that release by human movement must be considered a real possibility. Inspectors have already cleared a laboratory employee from Merial of having leaked the virus, while a worker at IAH contracted Legionnaires' disease, with investigators saying the lab is a possible source of contamination.

Merial has rigorously defended its safety record: "Over the last three and a half days we have conducted intensive investigations. To date we have not been able to establish any evidence that the virus may have been transported out of the centre by humans."

Many animal health companies have low corporate profiles in the UK, as they tend to be mere subsidiaries of much larger biotech, chemical and pharmaceutical firms either headquartered in the EU or in the US. Also, the UK has high-profile animal liberation organisations, which have in the past attacked animal research centres or staff employed by them.

Total UK sales of animal medicines and vaccines bring in GBP 400m annually, according to the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) which represents the industry. Animal vaccine sales in the UK amounted to GBP 83m in FY06, with the majority of the UK animal health market made up of anti-parasitic treatments.

9th August 2007

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