London,May 1, 1998
Thebusiness of tracking BSE started in a Portakabin. The main building at the CentralVeterinary Laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, was undergoing a refit in thespring of 1987. One virtue of the arrangement was that the head of epidemiology,a veterinarian named John Wilesmith, could smoke at his desk.
BSEhad first been spotted two years earlier, in the West Country and on the SouthCoast. Yet as bagged cattle brains arrived for diagnosis from regional outpostsall over the country, Weybridge pathologists struggled to identify the
ByNovember 1985 a junior pathologist suggested that she saw a "spongiform encephalopathy".However, all "spongiform" means is "sponge-like", "encephalopathy"that it is in the brain. Similar pathology could have occurred for all sorts ofreasons, including pesticide poisoning. It was only in April 1986 thatWeybridge suspected it had an altogether nastier customer, a
transmissiblespongiform encephalopathy, a school of deadly diseases best known to affectsheep and, in Papua New Guinea, cannibals.
Alarmed,Ray Bradley, a Weybridge pathologist, wrote to the Chief Veterinary Officer,Howard Rees, a civil servant whose brief concerned trade promotion as muchlivestock health. He had lines straight to ministers and may or may not haveinformed them about BSE before the acknowledged date of 5 June 1987, more thana year later.
Notifiedabout BSE almost as late as ministers were scientists at the NeuropathogenesisUnit in Edinburgh, world-renowned experts on transmissible spongiformencephalopathies. They could have diagnosed BSE in hours, not years.
However,Wilesmith was as good a man as any to find out what was spreading it. By thetime he was given the job, BSE was festering on hundreds of farms. On 15 December1987, after nine months of quizzing farmers, he concluded that meat
andbonemeal in feed was the culprit. BSE, it seemed, had been spread just as kuruhad among natives of Papua New Guinea: by cannibalism.
YetWilesmith was asked to recheck his data. When he returned with the same answerin April 1988, a working party of government advisers was setup to study thedisease, led by Sir Richard Southwood, an Oxford zoologist. Again specialistsfrom the Neuropathogenesis Unit were not included. By the time the committeefirst met on 21 June 1988, there were 2,160 cases on 1,667 farms. New caseswere arising at 350-400 a week.
Whilethe Southwood committee moved fast to outlaw further inclusion of meat andbonemeal in dairy rations, an obvious emergency measure would have been to recallexisting stocks of contaminated feed. It would have cost about 26 million. Itwas not done.
Accordingto early projections, BSE should have died out much sooner after the feed banthan it did. One reason was that while feed compounders removed meat andbonemeal from cattle rations, they left it in fish meal, ostensibly for
poultryrations. This was legally included in dairy feeds until 1996. Such loopholessent Wilesmith back to feed again and again.
He isstill smoking, an expensive habit on a vet's salary, and still doggedly seeingoff the last cases of BSE. His reward for service has been a decade of constant,often vicious criticism. By contrast, agriculture ministers have come
andgone. John MacGregor, the agriculture minister during those early days of BSE,went on to become a director of Associated British Foods, which, ironically,owns Bibbys, one of the UK's largest livestock feed compounders.
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