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DR Iain Anderson's review of last year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) in Surrey, which was published this week, will be of interest to anyone involved with or affected by the consequences of that outbreak and, indeed, the uk fmd epidemic of 2001. Dr Anderson conducted the ‘Lessons to be learned’ inquiry into the 2001 epidemic. As such, he was well placed to examine the Government's response to last year's outbreak and comment on how well the lessons drawn from the experiences of 2001 were applied.
Much of the media comment on his latest report has focused on how the outbreak was caused by the escape of virus from the research and vaccine production facility at Pirbright, but his review deals with much else besides. It gives a blow-by-blow account of the ‘two distinct phases’ of the Surrey outbreak, detailing events from when the disease was first suspected on the evening of August 2, 2007, to the announcement on September 8 that the outbreak was over, and describing how a national movement ban had to be reimposed just four days later when fmd was again confirmed on a farm just outside the original surveillance zone. It then assesses the Government's response to the outbreak in terms of nine key lessons drawn from the experiences of 2001, making about 25 new recommendations in the process. Overall, Dr Anderson says, the handling of the 2007 outbreak was better than in 2001, but there were still lessons to be learned. ‘In examining the 2007 outbreak, we found much to applaud, along with some deficiencies. On balance, the positive easily outweighs the negative.’
On the positive side, the report says that contingency planning in defra and government has undergone ‘a stepwise change in quality’ since 2001 and that many improvements have been made. It nevertheless notes that there is still work to be done and its recommendations include the suggestion that ‘defra reviews the scaleability of its existing contingency plans and emergency staffing models’. The 2007 outbreak was, it points out, much smaller than in 2001 and, as a result, did not really test defra's capability to manage a large and distributed outbreak. The availability of vets to help deal with fmd was a key issue in 2001 and, as the bva pointed out in its submission to Dr Anderson's review, could again have been an issue in 2007 if the situation had deteriorated (see VR, December 1, 2007, vol 161, p 733). His report rightly points out that preplanning is needed on how Animal Health and defra would train and deploy the much larger numbers of staff that would be needed under a worst case scenario. It also points out that more epidemiologists would be needed to deal with a large-scale outbreak.
Other ‘positives’ discussed in the report include the role that science played during the outbreak and the way it was used to inform the decision not to vaccinate animals. External communication, too, was felt to have ‘greatly improved, especially with the news-hungry media’, although the point is made that perhaps too much reliance was placed on communication via defra's website, given that many farmers do not have day-to-day access to the web.
On the negative side, the report points out that the virus should never have escaped from Pirbright in the first place, and that the regulatory system was poor given the level of risk managed at the facility. It concludes that the weaknesses in biosafety and biosecurity uncovered at Pirbright were ‘weaknesses in the total regulatory system, not the failure of one individual’, and, in making proposals for improvement, says that the circumstances that led to the outbreak must never be allowed to happen again. It is also critical of the data and information management systems available to defra during last year's outbreak, suggesting that these have hardly improved since 2001.
The report makes some important observations in relation to devolution. It points out that there is now more potential for divergence in animal health policies across Great Britain than there was in 2001, as policymakers in the devolved administrations react to their own national circumstances. It draws attention to some of the tensions that developed in 2007 and also points out that the devolution of policy, but not operations, could cause tension in the future, noting that ‘As things stand, for any future outbreak in Scotland or Wales only, policy would be decided by Scottish or Welsh ministers, while operations would be delivered by Animal Health, funded by defra. This would leave scope for disagreement if a Scottish or Welsh policy decision were to have significant additional cost implications for defra.’ As the report points out, these are complex issues which will take time to resolve. Nevertheless, it is right to suggest that they should be addressed as a matter of urgency, and that the relevant concordats should be reviewed and updated.
A key — and potentially far-reaching — recommendation in the report concerns the future of Pirbright and the Institute for Animal Health (iah). It is suggested that the iah should be ‘repositioned’ as a National Institute of Infectious Diseases, supported by multiple sources of funding from government and elsewhere, and devoted to vital short-, medium- and long-term research into animal and zoonotic viral diseases. The report does not go into details of how the new institute would be structured and funded; however, if it meant that such work could be supported on a more secure and sustainable basis than has been the case until now, the proposal should be welcomed.