International experts are surprised that the highly contagious foot and mouth disease virus has not escaped from laboratories in countries like Botswana where the virus is regularly handled in laboratories on the mainland.
This follows the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain where the virus is believed to have escaped from a lab making foot and mouth vaccines located near herds of cows.
Foot-and-mouth disease is so easily spread ÔÇö and such a threat to farm economies ÔÇö that the United States will not allow researchers to work with the virus on the mainland.
Britain’s health and safety agency says there was a “strong probability” the outbreak originated at the Pirbright laboratory southwest of London and was spread by human movement. The laboratory houses both a government Institute for Animal Health research center and a private company that makes vaccines.
“With the amount of virus there is in laboratories around the world, I’m surprised that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often,” said Dr. Juan Lubroth, head of infectious diseases at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Foot-and-mouth disease is the most contagious disease among mammals. In the U.S., which has been free of foot-and-mouth since 1929, it is illegal for anyone to possess the virus outside of a single research laboratory on Plum Island, New York. Germany employs the same policy. Some experts think that by restricting the virus’ use to an island, even in the event of an outbreak, it would be self-contained.
But others say an island is not necessarily the answer.
“With today’s technology, you can do very safe work without having to be on an island,” Lubroth said.
In other countries like Botswana, Canada, China, Egypt, Spain, Switzerland and South Africa, the virus is regularly handled in laboratories on the mainland ÔÇö and without major problems.
“Regardless of whether the virus is on an island or on the mainland, it all comes down to respecting the proper biosecurity measures,” said Dr. Andrea Morgan, an associate deputy administrator in the veterinary services department at the United States Department of Agriculture.
According to a 2002 government review, parts of the research center suspected in the British outbreak were deemed to be “shabby,” though no biosecurity concerns were raised. The National Farmers’ Union has for years expressed concern the center was potentially vulnerable to a lab accident. Plans are currently in place to rebuild the center by 2011, at a cost of ┬ú121 million (US$245 million, Ôé¼178 million).
The drug company being investigated as a possible source of the foot and mouth outbreak insisted there had been no violation of its biosecurity procedures. “To date, we have not been able to establish any evidence that the virus may have been transported out of our center by humans,” said vaccine-maker Merial Animal Health ÔÇö the British arm of U.S.-French Merial Ltd.
Experts thought a laboratory connection was likely.
“It seems a little bit too coincidental that the strain of the foot and mouth virus causing the outbreak was the same one being used in a laboratory five miles away,” said Dr. Freda Scott-Park, immediate past president of the British Veterinary Association.
“This would not be the first time that we’ve had an event linked to a virus escaping from a lab,” said Dr. Bernard Vallat, director-general of the World Organization for Animal Health, adding that Britain’s rapid response to the outbreak should ensure that.