Lab bosses 'in denial' over role in foot and mouth scare
BOSSES of a laboratory at the centre of Britain's latest foot and mouth outbreak are in "a state of denial" over their involvement in the scare, furious government officials claimed last night.
As Britain began to relax some of its emergency defences against the disease, senior sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) made it clear that the controversy over the episode was far from over, with a frustrated claim that the private company Merial had still not acknowledged that it could have played a role in the outbreak.
A high-level investigation into the first outbreak of the disease at a Surrey farm last week placed the blame on the nearby Pirbright site as the most likely source of the disease. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concluded there was a "strong probability" that the virus originated at the laboratories, shared by Merial and the state-run Institute for Animal Health.
But Merial chiefs have consistently refused to accept responsibility for the episode, provoking frustration among government officials who are desperate to trace the source of the virus and prevent a fresh outbreak.
"No one can say with absolute certainty where this virus came from," one official said. "But the inquiry has clearly pointed to this site. Merial is not refusing to cooperate, but they are not doing much more, and that is not helping us to clear this up once and for all. The state of denial over this is not helpful."
The first UK case of FMD for six years was found at Woolford Farm near Guildford in Surrey nine days ago, with a second outbreak confirmed at a second farm on Monday. Both farms are within miles of the Pirbright site.
The HSE found there was a "negligible" risk it had been spread by the wind or flooding, but its report said the disease could have been the result of human movement or "accidental or deliberate transfer".
Merial, which manufactures vaccines, had been involved in "large scale production" of the strain - about 10,000 litres - while the Institute for Animal Health had been carrying out "small scale" experiments.
IAH head Professor Martin Shirley said the institute was concerned about the "lack of unambiguous evidence" at this stage of the investigation and it would continue to review its biosecurity measures.
Scotland's islands received a boost with the announcement that as from midnight last night they would be exempt from many of the major restrictions imposed after the outbreak.
Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will no longer be in the restricted zone.
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