Saturday, 10 November 2007


And so we wave farewell to Dr Debby Reynolds. We wish her well. We wish her a better future. We wish ourselves a better future. But those choosing Chief Veterinary Officers seem to be searching for special skills. The last thing wanted in a CVO, it seems, is the dangerous ability to empathise with animals and people. Such a weakness could jeopardise the "disease control strategy" which, according to the departing Debby, "is the best in the world".
(These really were the valedictory words of the CVO. An inability to engage with reality would appear to be another characteristic much prized.)

In 2001, the late, great Professor Fred Brown O.B.E was scathing of another CVO, Jim Scudamore. He said of the poor man that he would be better off doing a different job; "gardening, for example". Fred was one of the best British scientists ever - a brilliant and kindly searcher and researcher of the old school where what mattered was the truth. One of my best memories of him was while we were going through the obstacle course of security at (the so well named) Portcullis House. We were on our way to talk to David Curry, the Chair of the EFRA committee. While we waited, Professor Brown was telling me how Pirbright had been 'world class' precisely because it had been, in its heyday, a public service laboratory. It existed in order to serve the public through science.
And that pretty well summed up Fred Brown too.

There wasn't much he didn't know about Foot and Mouth, but as he wryly remarked,
"scientists know more and more about less and less while politicians know less and less about bugger all."
The EFRA Committee is that All-Party Select Committee whose job includes overseeing DEFRA. Our hopeful little band thought that if the Chairman heard Fred talking with such competent enthusiasm about the elegant new ARS Tetracore FMD PCR device he could hardly fail to use his influence to get the tests trialled and then adopted for use in the UK. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

That 2001 test could, (as the 2007 machines can do even better and more cheaply,) check whether animals were infected with foot and mouth before clinical signs were apparent. There was no fear of cross contamination because of the self sealing cartridge. Proper RT-PCR testing could be done on the farms themselves and give reliable results within the hour.

Had the EFRA Committee put all its clout behind on-site PCR, virtually none of the bloody and senseless killing that was going on then and has been going on since need have taken place.

Early in the 2001 crisis a question had been put to Sir David King, one of the chief architects of the UK's kill them first, ask afterwards policy:
If this machine is as accurate as Professor Brown told me, he said it is 99 per cent accurate, could it not have saved this huge, vast, expensive cull of mainly healthy animals?
It was the best question of 2001 - but it got the wrong answer.

King's waffling reply can be read here. He failed to understand the complexities of what the US were offering for trial but implied that he, David King, naturally, knew all about these machines. He defined the term "PCR" for the benefit of the assembled company. He implied that Pirbright (and himself) knew best. The suggestion that the ARS Tetracore kit worked better than anything the UK could produce for itself was, he implied, nonsense. And cross contamination most certainly would be a problem.

And after the carnage, Sir David King's contempt continued unabated. The following December, after literally millions of healthy animals had been slaughtered in very nasty circumstances indeed, Britain's Chief Scientific Advisor congratulated himself on a job well done and told the Today Programme "we did attempt to validate Fred Brown's test"

No. Professor King is mistaken. What appeared in the Veterinary Record on 6 October 2001 (and it is interesting that it no longer seems to appear in the Vet Rec archive): as "Evaluation of a portable, 'real-time' PCR machine for FMD diagnosis", by Alex Donaldson and his team, was a fiasco because it tested the body of the machine but with the wrong reagents. Which is rather like testing a motor bike after filling its tank with lemonade. "The reagents used in the assay were recommended by the manufacturer of the instrument" claimed the authors - but they were not recommended by the manufacturer, only by a rival company who didn't know what reagents were needed any more than Pirbright did and were only guessing. The paper said that the machine gave "poor results" and that, as far as David King was concerned, was that.

Had it been properly trialled with the correct reagents - in other words, had the US offer been courteously accepted - the story of FMD in 2001 would be very different.

And in 2007, had such machines been used, with or without vaccination, the grief of these past endless weeks could have been spared too. But, because of the intransigence of David King, Debby Reynolds and the yes men of DEFRA and elsewhere, we had neither.

In anywhere other than DEFRAworld, that virus escape from Pirbright would have heralded a real time exercise in vaccination of such importance that farmers and countrymen would have been united in their gratitude. The wretched virus would have been stopped efficiently in its tracks and, to make assurance doubly sure, portable RT-PCR diagnostic machines, operated by anyone after the most cursory training, would have been able to check the oral and nasal swabs of any nearby herds with very little need for blood to be taken. The whole thing would have been over within days.

Why do we go on banging on about all this? Why can we not just let it go?
There are two reasons. The first is that DEFRA still seems unaware of the importance of this technology - in spite of the UK's contribution to the development of new versions such as the Enigma machine at Porton and the Smiths Detection machine These machine must by now be nearly ready for commercial buyers. Some would say it is precisely for this reason that DEFRA has been waiting; so that the profits will come to the UK. Little hope. Small, efficient, cheap machines from elsewhere are on the way and they will be unstoppable. But it is heartbreaking to know that in the former Soviet Bloc countries, machines as small as toasters are already being used routinely on farms to detect and track pathogens with RT-PCR. In those countries viruses such as FMD and Bluetongue can be detected and stopped before they spread and cause the sort of damage that they wreak in Europe.

The second reason is that in a decent society we should expect accountability in our leaders. Animal Health policy in the UK has very little to do with health and even less to do with concern for animals. It is all about maintaining control. Those who have dragged farmers and animals into an unnecessary nightmare have never been accountable, they have never been sacked, they have never even apologised. On the contrary, most of them have been promoted and covered in honours or at least, as DEFRA might put it, " with plaudits".

It is time they were shown the door, leaving animal health to those who would care about animals and about their health. The blessings of modern veterinary science, the boon of technology and vets worth the name should be in charge.

And all the rest should go on gardening leave.

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