Second Outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty

Cattle on a farm within surveillance zone set up in Pirbright, England.

A second outbreak of foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease emerged in Britain on Monday night, thwarting early hopes that the highly contagious animal disease could be contained.

British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said a second herd of cattle had tested positive for the virus less than two miles from where a first infected group was found on Friday, on a farm some 30 miles (48 km) southwest of London. Health officials emphasized that the outbreak occurred within an enforced "protection zone" around the first incident, and there was still no evidence of wider spread of the disease.

A report this afternoon into biosecurity at a vaccine laboratory suspected of being at the center of the cases was inconclusive. Health officials believe the nearby Pirbright research lab — home to a government research center and a company that makes FMD vaccines — is the source because the strain of the virus identified in the sickened cattle currently exists only in research centers.

But the report from Britain's Health and Safety Executive failed to determine how the virus may have escaped from the site. Officials spent the last three days scrutinizing Merial Animal Health, the British arm of U.S.-based Merial Ltd, which recently produced 10,000 litres of foot-and-mouth virus culture during vaccine preparation. There have been media speculation that recent flooding in the U.K. helped spread the virus from the Merial lab, but the report said waterborne release had not been confirmed and that release via contamination of a lab employee or visitor remains a "real possibility" (the foot-and-mouth virus can be transported on shoes and clothing).

A spokesman for Merial Animal Health said Monday there was no indication of a biosecurity breach and investigations continue.

Nonetheless, the British government yesterday ordered 300,000 doses of FMD vaccine from Merial in case of a wider outbreak, leading to calls in the national press for the private company to be stripped of profits form the sale should it be confirmed as the source of the infection. FMD causes blistering and fevers in cloven-hoofed animals including cows, sheep, pigs and goats, but rarely infects humans. While rarely fatal, it decimates the health of livestock, reducing weight and milk yield.

News of the second outbreak stoked fears among local farmers over a repeat of the FMD outbreak of 2001, which devastated British farming and hit tourism, costing the economy an estimated $17 billion. Lawrence Mathews, the owner of the land where the second outbreak emerged told BBC radio: "We were starting to think that maybe this virus has been contained and maybe we'd get back to normality within the next few weeks."

Matthews and other local farmers met Prime Minister Gordon Brown as he toured the region Monday. Farmers, who were heavily critical of the government's response to the outbreak six years ago, have been more muted in their criticism this time, although there were calls for local footpaths to be closed within the government-imposed exclusion zone amid concerns that the virus could be carried and spread on the feet of walkers and journalists passing through the area.