New approach. Sophisticated antibody tests have tipped the equation in favor of emergency vaccination, says inquiry chair Brian Follett (right).

Vaccinate the Herds!

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

LONDON--Britain's top scientific body has urged the government to abandon its longstanding practice of relying solely on slaughtering animals to combat outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Instead, in a report released on 16 July, a Royal Society panel has concluded that vaccination and improved data collection should result in better control and fewer dead animals.

The use of vaccination to control FMD epidemics has long been controversial, but the panel argues that new tests remove many of the objections. The panel's recommendation "is a great step forward," says Martin Hugh-Jones, a veterinary epidemiologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Other recommendations receiving praise include accelerated research on a vaccine conferring sustained immunity to FMD and an upgrade in the U.K.'s antiquated veterinary data collection system.

Last year's outbreak of FMD led to the slaughter of 6 million cows, pigs, and sheep--costing British agriculture industry alone an estimated $4.8 billion. Britain has been under attack for having relied on culling to contain the epidemic. Vaccines against FMD exist, but they confer immunity for only several months. Moreover, vaccinated animals can sometimes become infected with the foot-and-mouth virus, and until recently it was virtually impossible to distinguish infected from noninfected vaccinated animals.

The panel notes, however, that more sophisticated antibody tests can now distinguish vaccinated from vaccinated-infected animals. "These have really changed the situation on the ground," says panel chair Brian Follett, vice chancellor at the University of Warwick, who presented the report here at a press conference.

Several issues must be resolved before emergency vaccination becomes an avowed strategy, the panel notes, starting with assurances from the U.K. government that meat from vaccinated animals could be sold on the domestic market. In addition, the report notes, scientists need to validate the new tests that discriminate between infected and vaccinated animals. These issues "are not insuperable," Follett says, and could be worked out by the end of 2003.

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The Royal Society report

Posted in Europe