TheNew Statesman

October3, 1997


HumanBSE. ItŐs official



Nowthat the scientists have confirmed their beliefs about the link with CJD,

thegovernment must listen to their pleas and launch an inquiry.




INMARCH 1996 a panel of top-flight British scientists took an educated guess thata new variant of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease was caused by the same agent as bovinespongiform encephalopathy, BSE, or mad cow disease. They then made anothersupposition, this time that the new human disease, appearing in unusually youngvictims, was caused by eating BSE-contaminated beef products. This educated guesscaused a crushing blow to the Tory government and UK agriculture. Yet for I8months a question mark has hung over the researchers: had they made a 4billion-plus pound mistake?


Definitivevalidation remains elusive. The race to isolate the cause of spongy braindiseases has spanned most of the century. However, even at the onset of the BSEcrisis, deducing whether BSE and nv-CJD were caused by the same agent waswithin our reach, and work began almost immediately. Since March 1996 the answerhas been keenly anticipated. Shorthand for it has become known simply as "Moira'sresults". Few of those who bandy this phrase about know the Moira in question.She is Dr Moira Bruce, a biologist of several decades' tenure at the NeuropathogenesisUnit in Edinburgh.


Dr Bruceis one of the quietest, most formal, and old-fashioned of scientists, atortoise in the occasionally frenzied scientific race that has characterized researchinto mad cow disease. Yet the imperturbable Scot illustrated soundly that BSEin cattle and a new variant of CJD in humans are caused by the same agent. Sheinoculated specially inbred mice with infected brain homogenate from a varietyof species, including people and cattle. She employed homogenate from humanswith conventional CJD, and that from victims of the new variant. New variantand cattle produced a distinctive BSE "fingerprint", matching earlierfingerprints originating from a variety of species, which have provedvulnerable to BSE. Her method, and the sheer breadth of matches - cows, goats,cats, antelope, sheep and now humans - make Dr Bruce's work irrefutable. Thesenior scientific whistleblowers may finally exhale: they were right. Lest itescape ministers, the headline to the editorial in Nature magazine this weekreads starkly "Human BSE".


Anoverloaded new government might be tempted to ignore Moira's results, and hopewe do, too. It might prefer that the media dwell instead on the height of thesecurity fence at Brighton, or the record number of passes issued for the Labourconference within it. Still, it is hard not to sympathise with the Secretary ofState for Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, who has so far stalled on whether tocall a judicial inquiry into BSE. He inherited a difficult brief in the best oftimes, and, for agriculture, these are the worst.


Yethis hesitation is dangerous. It begs the question why a train crash receives animmediate inquiry and BSE does not. The answer may lie with the Treasury. Thecost of apportioning responsibility for BSE could be open-ended. We do notknow, nor will we know for years, how many victims will be claimed by "humanBSE". We do know that 21 Britons and one Frenchman have succumbed.


Sofar scientists have carried the can; they have finally lost patience. Two weeksago Professor John Pattison, chairman of the government's spongiform encephalopathyadvisory committee (Seac), preferred to write privately to ministers ratherthan join colleagues, including the leader of the government investigation intothe Scottish E. coli outbreak, Professor Hugh Pennington, in supporting thismagazine's call for a judicial inquiry. This week, after Moira's results, heshed the circumspection characteristic of civil servants and raised the call onevery evening news bulletin, then Newsnight. Professor Colin Blakemore, aleading Oxford physiologist, was among the first publicly to contradict then HealthSecretary, Stephen Dorrell, about BSE in November 1995. Within days of the NewStatesman's open letter on BSE (12 September 1997), Blakemore used his debutpress conference as president of the British Association for the Advancement ofScience to second it.


ProfessorJohn Collinge, a member of Seac and a neurologist from St Mary's Hospital inLondon, employs rather different methods. He also has a piece in this issue ofNature, which comes to the same conclusion as Dr Bruce, albeit with chaotic,unreviewed data. He was sufficiently alarmed by creeping complacency that,several months ago, he took the extraordinary step of telling a Timesjournalist that we still could not rule out a "plague of biblical proportions".


Perhaps,by ministerial measure, the plague is too puny. Anyone hoping it will remainsmall should consider that a recent victim, Clare Tomkins, is a vegetarian ofmore than ten years' standing. Her illness implies the incubation time may bemuch longer than had been thought. As senior Seac officials, commenting thisweek in Nature, say, "Much depends on the average incubation time ofnv-CJD: the longer the time, the higher the final figure is likely to be."


TheTories ignored, suppressed and misrepresented scientific cautions to rubberstampthe safety of an increasingly dodgy offal trade. Emboldened by Moira's results,the same scientists misused by the Conservatives are now making ever morestrident calls for an inquiry, which most believe should be a judicial inquiryequipped with subpoena powers and the ability to fix compensation forincreasing numbers of nv-CJD victims. If new Labour calls an inquiry now, itwill uncover only scandals of a corrupt previous administration. If itcontinues to resist the measure, it will inherit not just the disaster of BSE,but responsibility for it.


CopyrightStatesman and Nation Publishing Company, Ltd Oct 3, 1997.