Friday, 26 October 2007


Time is ticking away. And we feel like passengers on a rapidly sinking ship who are not being given access to the lifeboats we can see lined up on the davits because there has not yet been an official drill.
The UK has NOT put in any order for Bluetongue BTv-8 vaccine because, say DEFRA, it isn't yet available.

Well it won't be if they don't order it.

Is somebody with a bit of clout yet understanding all this and realising the lunacy of inaction and demanding that urgent decisions be made? Well, it is just possible that there are some within the Opposition parties who are on the case at last. We watch and hope.

We can only hope too that someone at Page Street was listening to Intervet's Paul van Aarle on Farming Today this morning.

"It's not a matter of difficulty. We have good production capacity and can handle quantities (if they are certain). The main issue there is when we get the commitment from the government..."
Merial, of course, were further on in production even than Intervet - but when DEFRA banned further work on the vaccine in Surrey everything ground to a halt. Merial's vaccine now has to be produced in France.

We hear from an organic sheep farmer in Germany that the third company, Fort Dodge, is also developing an inactivated BTv-8 vaccine in Spain. He was told:

"We are aware, that there is an urgent need for vaccine and we would be happy for you if we already had one. We can only succeed in producing the necessary amount of doses by working together,"
Working together does seem the only possible way for Europe to emerge from this and it looks as though the vaccine companies are prepared to work in collaboration to prepare adequate doses of vaccine in the face of a threat that involves us all.

Are the European countries able to get together too? It is vital to ensure that a coherent plan is drawn up Europe wide. The affected organisations in the UK are now strongly urging the UK government to take the necessary steps - and how bizarre that things are moving so desperately slowly. But Kim Haywood, NBA director, made a very pertinent observation:

"There are suggestions that government is uneasy about approving a vaccination
programme because it has never done so with FMD.."

All too likely. What a terrible irony it is that foot and mouth, for which there have been modern marker vaccines available which have proved their worth since long before 2001, is still being "cured" with the unrepentant UK's blunt instrument of mass slaughter - yet it is Bluetongue , which does not yield to anything except eradication via vaccines, that is causing the UK finally to examine its mediaeval mindset. All the same, the process is tortuous and it is moving at the pace of a reluctant snail.

Ms Haywood, also at Brussels last week, is under no illusions about the necessity of putting in vaccine orders at once.

"..without it the UK's farmers will find it impossible to protect both their livelihoods and their stock."
As for the Zones with which parts of the country are now swathed and strangled, is DEFRA, in a misplaced determination to control the virus, actually killing farming itself? Should the whole of the British Isles bite the bullet and accept that the disease is well and truly with us?

It seems to be being assumed in the UK that Bluetongue spread faster in Holland and Belgium, where they extended the control zone to the entire country, than it did in France, where control zones were adhered to for as long as possible. But with the wildfire spread of BTv in Europe - and the fact that the infected midges have been around in the UK certainly since early August - it would seem very unlikely indeed that the control zones are not going to have to spread out wider and wider in the next weeks and months. It's the next days though that are of vital importance to those who are stuck. Those such as Frank Langrish, chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board, who think that unless the zone is extended to the whole of the country, "we in the CZ are all finished"

He says

"...I have spoken to people in Holland and Belgium about it. They all said it’s just a waste of time trying to control it. You just accept you have got it and if we are confident we are going to have a vaccine by next summer, we can live with it until then. The disease is not going to kill animals but the restrictions are going to kill thousands unless we move to one CZ."
It is a very persuasive view. All the same, there are those in the Welsh Assembly for instance who are not at all keen voluntarily to share the restrictions even if their extension would alleviate much of the problem. The NFUS' Nigel Miller too says:

"Scotland has no intention of becoming part of a UK-wide Bluetongue Control Zone, unless the disease situation changes significantly..."
Perhaps Mr Miller is unaware of just how close BTV is to Scotland now; since it has been discovered in Denmark, Poland and Scandinavia it is certainly now winging its way inexorably nearer.

German Bluetongue expert, Sabine Zentis, remains deeply sympathetic but adamant in her advice:
"... they really shouldn't extend the zone but rather give permission for all movements directly to slaughter. .. once the vector activity ceases, animals for breeding can be moved after blood tests giving a negative result for the virus. We have been living with these restrictions for 14 months now - and they are not as bad as watching animals go down with BT in large numbers..."

True. But watching healthy animals go down in large numbers because there is no other humane course - seeing them slaughtered, wasted and burned or buried because movement is impossible - this is also a black misery that seems out of all proportion to the disease itself. We really need to know whether the livestock controls are actually playing any useful part at all in preventing spread of the disease.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

DEFRA's Disastrous Dithering

Merial and Intervet say that, between them, they could meet demand in 2008, provided there is a plan. If there is no coherent plan, they will have to produce vaccine based on 'first come - first served' basis, which is most certainly not the best strategy for the EU. Merial indicates they will not raise vaccine prices in case of shortages

"Don't let people confuse you," we are told by the insider who told us the above, "It is just a matter of political will".

If the EU Commission is short of funds, they should go to the European Parliament and ask for more.(Jan Mulder is a member of the budget committee. He spoke kindly to me in Brussels after the four hour session in the Parliament.)

The key points we have to get the politicians to understand are these:

  • The Commission promised to pay for the vaccines themselves
  • The Commission promised to pay 50% of the vaccination costs during the first year.
  • Our European neighbours are much further up the learning curve. Michel Barnier, the excellent French Minister of Agriculture, has put in an order for 33.4 million doses of vaccine. Germany plans to order 5 million doses and says "eradication of BT can only be achieved by vaccination of all susceptible farmed ruminants..."

    Holland is ordering 1 or 2 million vaccine doses for sheep while the decision will be taken on the 6th of November for cattle.

    Both Merial and Intervet have prototypes of vaccines available. They need only firm orders in order to get producing. After production, they need time for safety testing of vaccines. It should be possible to produce vaccines by May 2008.

    DEFRA is at the very bottom of this steep learning curve and is dithering.

    This, says an observer at the meeting in the Hague in early October, was very apparent. Any suggestion that DEFRA was told by vaccine companies that it was then too late for an order to be delivered in the spring is not the case. It is simply a matter of political will.

    Heartbreakingly, neither DEFRA nor even the British MEPs are up to speed. Precious time is being frittered away while defeatist nonsense is being spread about on the subject of bluetongue vaccine. Talk of a mere 'firefighting' amount or that vaccines will be terribly expensive "due to demand" or that since the EU is offering support out of a "very limited pot" - all this is DEFRA defeatism and bewilderment and is leading to no action at all. In short, an excuse for a headless chicken to run about in circles.

    Dr Ruth Watkins - who most certainly is up to speed - gave a talk yesterday to the Pedigree Beef Society Group at an emergency Bluetongue meeting at Stoneleigh.

    The Powerpoint presentation that she gave as an illustration to her talk really is a crash course in 'all you need to know about Bluetongue'. She concludes that inactivated vaccine is absolutely vital for us and a firm order must be made - now.

    (FOOTNOTE We hear this morning from a reliable source that DEFRA may, after all, be ordering vaccine "or will do shortly". One wonders, as always, at the entrenched mindset where everything must be kept secret. Paranoia reigns - usually a symptom of a deeper illness. But if this is true - if - then at least we can stop banging on about ordering vaccine.)

    Wednesday, 24 October 2007

    The Midges arrived, safe and well, on August 4th

    Informed voices are starting to be raised in earnest about the desperate Bluetongue situation.
    (The culicoides wing looks like this, actually)
    The increasingly vocal European Livestock Alliance has put forward a Resolution to which governments other than my own are most certainly listening:
    "the disease situation does not allow further inaction... European Governments must act swiftly and decisively in order to ensure large scale vaccine production as soon as possible ...Governments, European Commission/ European Parliament, and the various stakeholder groups" should "immediately develop Plans of Action regarding the species to be vaccinated, vaccination schedules, required vaccination coverage and allocation of available vaccine stocks within Europe as soon as they become available."
    One of the leading lights of the ELA is that most experienced and world renowned expert in fighting animal disease, Paul Sutmoller. An opinion on BTV biosecurity sent to Dr. Sutmoller by fellow scientist Geoff Letchworth, DVM, Ph.D, makes very clear that the present stymying of BTV vaccine production by DEFRA is potentially catastrophic.

    Professor Letchworth wrote:
    "The unfortunate situation of one of the world's preeminent vaccine companies being precluded from producing a bluetongue vaccine to protect animals against an ongoing epidemic prompts me to weigh in on the subject of bluetongue biosafety."
    He says that the virus is not going to be killed by an English or even the most extreme Arctic winter. It is here to stay.

    Yet DEFRA is still expressing worries about the possible escape of a virus that cannot infect animals unless actually injected. Prof Letchworth is tactful but adamant:
    "...worries about rigorous biocontainment requirements would be counterproductive if they delayed or prevented the use of vaccine ... the past year's experience has shown that not having a vaccine is a major risk."
    (See Prof Letchworth's opinion.)

    But how grateful we must be for the knowledge that IAH and the seconded Met Office man can, with such expertise, observe, analyse and chart the movements of the bluetongue virus carrying midge:

    "Overnight on 4/5 August was considered ideal in respect of conditions for midge take-off, safe transit and landing."
    The culicoides, then, evidently enjoyed a pretty carefree passage to our shores.

    The IAH seems not to be aware that their pride in all the data collected "to monitor the likely midge development in the area and help to identify areas for further spread of disease in the area..." is of precious little help to the livestock farmers in the straitjacket of DEFRA restrictions. They are caught far more tightly than any midges could have been in DEFRA's inspired but non-existent sticky nets.

    Can it really be possible, as it is most certainly rumoured to be, that DEFRA believes it can do without vaccine? That under the banner of the egregious Fred Landeg, the Battle of Britain against the Midge can be won without weapons? Vaccination languishes impotently at the Merial site at Pirbright - so now nothing is left except the lives and livelihoods of those on the front line.

    And now for another food scare, courtesy of the Food Standards Agency

    Just when sheep farmers felt that there could be nothing left to hurl at them, the Food Standards Agency has chosen to create another lamb scare. The BBC article and that of the Telegraph this morning create more confusion than they clear up.

    In the past, idiotic warnings about the risks from eating lamb have caused problem after problem for producers but we really thought the nuisance must cease once Ben Bradshaw finally and quietly at the end of January admitted,

    "the prevalence of BSE in the UK sheep population is most likely zero."
    But no. Today we read news that will have people avoiding lamb like the proverbial plague. Any mention of babies will do it and, sure enough, this latest "food alert" is that humans and babies could be at risk if they eat lamb.

    An abattoir "vet" apparently thought he could possibly smell sheep dip on one carcase - but even then there had not been enough time for any drug to have passed into the meat. What will certainly not register as warnings fly from shopper to shopper is the fact that the relevant drug (that never had time to reach the meat) has never been shown to cause harm to humans, the risk of contamination is negligible and that any meat that could even possibly have been suspect was removed on Friday.

    Cynical onlookers may well be watching with satisfaction. See

    POSTSCRIPT I have been taken to task - quite possibly correctly - over this last paragraph. Chris writes, "Credit to the vigilant officers I say - the public deserve protection from these chemicals; the villains of the piece are the abattoir buyers; this may have been a careless oversight, although I doubt it.
    Needless to say, the timing is dreadful!"

    However, another update via email is even more interesting: "I heard this week (before this story broke) that a lorry load of sheep for slaughter had been impounded at an abattoir in the North, due to 'taint' . This turned out to be the use of strong anti - midge disinfectant, sprayed all over the lorry in accordance with Defra guidelines - of course - before it could travel with slaughter stock to an abattoir outside the bluetongue zones. The smell had been picked up in their fleece from the lorry.
    Don't know if this could be the basis for this bit of mischief as well?"

    A weakness in the system

    Hilary Benn has chosen this precise moment to tell the EFRA Select Committee that that there are swingeing cuts to be made in animal health...
    So in spite of the looming death of livestock farming, the threat of bluetongue, foot and mouth, TB, and a host of other zoonoses on the move towards us, some of which could affect or even kill humans, animal health doesn't really matter.
    "I am keen to make progress on savings in animal health..."
    As for the escape of virus - it was just a
    "weakness in the system"

    Yes. One could say that.

    Aghast to hear that animal health doesn't really matter would have been those gathered in Washington for the OIE conference They are, dare we say, more influential than Mr Benn, and not only know the opposite to be true but are saying so loud and clear:
    "Healthy animals are crucial for the future of human race"
    said Dr. David Nabarro, United Nation System Influenza Coordinator

    "emerging animal diseases, three quarters of which are zoonotic, are set to become more and more part of the world landscape...the international community will be required to take an increasingly active long-term role in a global system of animal disease prevention and control."
    said Dr. François Le Gall of the World Bank.
    "only one country which does not comply may endanger the entire planet"
    said Bernard Vallat, Director General of OIE,

    The OIE conference brought together the eminent voices of specialists of both animal and public health, World Bank economists and experts in development. All renowned worldwide. They had gathered to discuss ways of dealing with zoonoses in the globalised world - and one of their major conclusions?
    The costs of preventing major animal diseases are significantly less than those associated with outbreaks

    Hilary Benn is widely acknowledged to be a nice man. He is nice, gentle and earnest, his father is liked and admired even by former enemies - and Hilary himself is a good man and, whisper it quietly, a vegetarian. What rotten luck to be handed the poisoned chalice of DEFRA just in time for the floods, pestilence and plagues to arrive.
    But he is the wrong man, pursuing the wrong policies in the wrong government. We are seeing some wretched decisions being made.

    Can the government really be watching the demise of farming with complacency and even satisfaction? Can those who talk blithely of the need to get rid of farmers really not know that the end of traditional livestock farming means the end of UK self sufficiency, the end of the much loved rural landscape, the end for many dependent wildlife species who need livestock farming and the end of unique skills and family traditions that will change for ever the heart and face of Britain?

    The crisis in farming, particularly in the hilly areas of England, Wales and Scotland, is of enormous importance to Britain as a whole. It can never be put into reverse once it reaches a critical point. The fact that the opposition parties appear ignorant of these vital matters too is yet another indication of the depths to which the parliamentary system has sunk - a 'weakness in the system' that threatens even greater danger to us all than the escape of virus that could, with vaccination, have been contained and remedied within days.

    Monday, 22 October 2007

    This could finish us

    The BTV-8 strain of Bluetongue has been a problem in Northern Europe for over two years but the EU, for all its macho, centralised strength and influence, will not in this instance take control. Instead, the big boss leans back in his swivel chair and says to his now impotent underlings, "It is up to you. Decide what to do. Get on with it."

    But the UK is dithering.

    The virus, carried by thousands upon thousands of adult female midges must be zapped fast. If BTV-8 vaccine production at Merial is still being held up by an edict from DEFRA then the whole of livestock farming in the UK is at risk and we are in deep trouble. The anti-vaccination mindset at DEFRA is very heavily entrenched. Even if lip service is being paid to the undeniable truth that only vaccination works on Bluetongue - nothing is at present being done. Like the EU itself, the tiny culicoides midges are experts in vast empire building. Their destructive power is not going to be stopped by boundaries - and this power, like the boundaries themselves, is growing all the time.

    Germany has realised the urgency of the situation and an emergency meeting has been held so that firm orders for BTV-8 vaccines can be dispatched. Are the Germans getting their towels on the deckchairs first? If so, good for them.
    They have understood that actual supplies of vaccine do not magically appear without firm orders. Vaccine producers cannot be expected to work blind without knowing how many million doses are going to be required. They are not funded as a public service - and can get their fingers badly burned. Intervet could not claim compensation a little while ago when CSF vaccines had to be thrown away because the presumed orders never materialised.

    The Chief Veterinary Officers of all affected European countries are the ones - whether they realise this or not - who are responsible for giving vaccine companies a firm commitment for vaccine orders. Getting adequate supplies will depend on those adequate firm orders.

    The EU seems to be prepared to be generous in funding - but it is down to each member state to order supplies. Contact Debby Reynolds or Fred Landeg to request that a firm commitment for supplies be ordered. Merial at Pirbright is furthest on with this work. It will be catastrophic if DEFRA continues to delay permission when there is in this work, as Professor Spratt pointed out, no danger to man nor beast.

    Is farming being left to die because DEFRA and its masters thinks all the meat needed to feed the UK can be imported?

    I was told, off the record in Brussels, that the UK would prefer to import all meat and want to be shot of their own farmers. Perhaps it is thought that they cost too much in political embarrassment, subsidies and compensation.

    Well, there are a few problems. Such a sanguine view of the future fails to appreciate record-high oil prices and turbulent financial markets. The Financial Times today is warning
    "a rise in inflation would trigger global interest rate increases, and this in turn could mark the beginning of a severe global recession"
    When warmwell first began to track the price of oil in April 2004 (See oil page) we were amazed by the fact that the price of a barrel was edging towards 50 dollars. Today, bets being taken on its reaching 100 look safe. It had reached 90 dollars on friday.

    As for wheat, the notion that wheat will always be available somewhere has been proved wrong. Bad harvests or outlooks in Australia, India, Pakistan, Texas and elsewhere have left countries who depended on reliable supplies scrambling for it. The price has skyrocketed. When other foodstuffs become scarce the politicians who have turned their backs on home-grown food are going to be in trouble. Hungry crowds are not interested in words.

    "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act"

    James Lovelock, that gentle, brilliant scientist whose fear for Gaia is more and more justified, has been warning us for some time now:
    "our nation is now so urbanised....we are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; ...we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can."
    A top Defra adviser recently spoke disparagingly to a farmer about how the UK is now in a
    "post agricultural era"
    This might well explain the catastrophic ignorance among those directing policy. What they cannot see are the dangers of allowing livestock farming to die a slow death.

    Dying a fast death is what a heartbreaking number of lambs on Frank the Wool's farm are pretty certain to face. His "diary of a bluetongue farmer" ought to be being read by everyone. You can read such things at - but not in the newspapers. Most of them, it seems, are colluding in keeping silent about the death of lambs and of agriculture. The public are not being made aware that hundreds upon hundreds of healthy animals are, yet again, paying the price of ineffective disease controls. The price the farmers are paying is causing them to say, "This could finish us."

    Frank the Wool says
    " If the government will not order the BTV8 vaccine this week (and pay for it) then we might as well accept that there is little point in trying to continue sheep farming..."
    He says, if, as is all too likely, it becomes impossible to sell his sheep on Friday
    ".... we will be forced to resort to on farm slaughter and burial for the store lambs.I doubt we will be given the luxury of a £15.00 disposal scheme as they have in Scotland and Wales. We will also have to make the hard decision to slaughter the ewe lambs and assess the maximum number of ewes that we have a chance of putting to the Tup. The surplus ewes will also have to be killed."
    Most heartbreaking of all, we read now that infected midges have probably long since moved on to bite more animals. All the sheep tested on Frank's farm were negative but his two Rams had been bitten by infected midges. His 19 cattle were extremely healthy but 5 of them were both sero positive and also positive to antibodies. This means, of course, that they were infected some time ago (at least ten days). They are not contagious to other animals but midges can get infected - and move on. Midges should be allowed to bite only vaccinated immune cattle and therefore not get infected!

    Next year not only will cattle be infected but also many more sheep as there will be many, many more infected midges.

    The UK's present pitiful stable-door-slamming disease controls are killing animals not the virus.

    But there is even worse. Disease control depends on farmers. They are the front line defenders because they can spot the first symptoms. If farmers feel they are going to be stuck and stymied and harassed as a result of reporting notifiable disease, going to have to slaughter and waste the animals they have looked after, then they are going to stop reporting disease.