Report: Lab leak likely caused UK foot-and-mouth outbreak

Aug 7, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A preliminary British government report says the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak discovered last week near London was very probably caused by a leak from a local laboratory.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report said there was a "strong probability" that the virus came from a lab facility shared by the government-funded Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and the private company Merial Animal Health Ltd, which makes FMD vaccines. The facility is at Pirbright in Surrey.

The highly contagious disease was discovered Aug 3 on a farm about 30 miles southwest of London. A second outbreak was confirmed yesterday on a farm a few hundred yards from the first affected farm, according to the Times of London. The Pirbright facility is said to be about 3 miles from the original outbreak site.

About 200 cattle have been slaughtered so far in the effort to contain the disease, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report today. Britain has banned livestock movements and the export of livestock, meat, and milk.

The HSE report said the virus strain found at the first affected farm matched one being used by IAH and Merial in late July. Merial was engaged in large-scale production—10,000 liters—of the virus, while the IAH was conducting experiments involving less than 10 milliliters, the report said.

The government report does not point to either organization specifically, but HSE Chief Executive Geoffrey Podger implied that Merial is under more suspicion, AFP reported. He said it appeared there was no reason to prevent the IAH from operating, but said, "In relation to Merial, we advise that further work should be done before any operations involving live pathogens are restarted."

The HSE report said there is a "real possibility" the virus was spread by human movement but little chance it had been spread by flooding or the wind.

In 2001, FMD outbreaks in Britain led to the destruction of about 7 million cattle, badly damaging farmers and rural tourism.

See also:

Initial report by the British Health and Safety Executive

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