05 August 2007

Foot-in-mouth disease

The whole world, if the news coverage is anything to go by, is probably beating its way to the door of the Institute for Animal Health, whose laboratory at Pirbright is implicated in the spread of the UK's latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). But click on that link and you will find that Pirbright has yet to wake up to the fact that we all want to read about FMD.

The page in question is headed "Disease factsheets". It is blank and, like the rest of the "new" web site, has a copyright date of 2006. In stead they urge visitors to "Click here to visit our old site." Follow the link and you can retrieve a file about Foot-and-mouth disease. The documents is sadly thin on useful details. Far better to read the pages on Wikipedia.

It would be unfair to expect the web weaver at the Institute for Animal Health to drop everything and rewrite the web site when news of the latest outbreak of the disease hit the headlines late on Friday evening, especially in the August holiday period. But there doesn't seem to be any sign that anyone at this institute or its paymaster, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is awake.

There is nothing on the BBSRC's home page or on its news page. The least they could have done would have been to post a link to the pages of the government department that is picking up the pieces.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has the story at the top of its front page. This takes you to a constantly updated statement.

One thing you will find at the BBSRC site is a PDF file of the most recent, 2002, review of Purbright. This tells us that:

"The condition of much of the Pirbright Laboratory, site infrastructure and associated housing is unsatisfactory and there is a clear need for urgent investment over the next five years in new laboratories and facilities. This should be part of a phased medium-term (10-year) rolling plan for the Pirbright Estate to be developed by the new Director with BBSRC and in consultation with DEFRA. We further recommend that IAH, in concert with BBSRC, develop a realistic and achievable plan for renovating its housing stock. We view these as urgent issues."
If there is any link between Pirsight and the current outbreak, the opposition parties are bound to beat up the Government for not responding to this statement. Such is the short term thinking of these people, and their poor knowledge of science, that they will ignore the fact that Pirbright's decline did not happen overnight, or even in the five years after the change of government.

It takes many years of neglect and underfunding to bring a laboratory to its knees. It then takes time to undo the damage. I bet they won't say that in the Daily Mail.

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