Science in Society Archive

Foot & Mouth Outbreak, GM Vaccine and Bio-warfare

The recent foot & mouth disease outbreak in the UK has been blamed on intensive agriculture, eco-terrorists, and globalisation. Now, evidence has emerged that it may be linked to experimental GM vaccines tested in simulated bio-warfare emergency. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on the unfolding story of a disaster that will be repeated unless bio-warfare and GM experiments are both brought under international peaceful control.

The foot & mouth disease outbreak in the UK has gone on for the best part of a year, with no sign of ending. More than 3.8 million livestock have been culled since February. It has cost an estimated £27 billion and untold hardship for family farmers and small businesses.

The UK Government has persistently refused to allow the animals to be vaccinated, instead of the massive cullings that have sickened the public in more ways than one. The Government has also refused to conduct a proper public enquiry, amid rumours that biological warfare agents or vaccines were involved in the outbreak. The story is now unfolding from investigations of independent journalists.

In August/September 2000, the company, United Biomedical Inc. (UBI) based in the USA had conducted tests on a vaccine for FMD Type O. That is the strain involved in the disease outbreak in the UK [1].

UBI announced on its website,
"We have vaccinated pigs, challenged them with infectious FMDV [foot and mouth disease virus], and successfully protected almost all of them (45 of 46 animals) from viral infection and out-performed the commercial product. This has been done by four government laboratories on three continents."

The three continents were Asia, America and Europe. The four governments were the US, the Chinese, the Mexican and the UK. Was the one pig the vaccine failed to protect in a UK government laboratory? All the governments have admitted these trials took place except the UK.

According to UBI, previous studies have been carried out in several biocontainment facilities, including the USDA Plum Island Animal Disease Centre, Greenport, NY, the Merial Animal Health Ltd Biological Laboratory, Pirbright, UK, and the Institute for Animal Science and Health, Lelystad, the Netherlands. But Merial UK denied it had any connection with UBI.

Plum Island Animal Disease Centre had been researching foot and mouth disease since 1954. It is the repository for the North American Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank, established in 1982, which keeps vaccine for the US, Canada and Mexico [2].

Merial is a Merk and Aventis company that have foot-and-mouth vaccine production laboratories close to those of the government's Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, Surrey.

Scientists in the Institute for Animal Health have also been trying to genetic engineer a recombinant DNA vaccine against FMDV. FMDV is a member of the family Picornaviridae. Its genome is a single-stranded RNA of 8.5 kb with one large open reading frame coding for a polyprotein. FMDV is highly contagious and mutable, and it afflicts mainly cloven-hoofed animals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, as well as some wild animals such as deer, camels and giraffes. In the lab, rats and hedgehogs have also been infected with the virus, although whether that happens in the wild is unclear.

The vaccine made by the Institute of Animal Health consisted of a plasmid containing FMDV type O sequences coding for viral coat and other proteins. It was found to protect only half of the vaccinated animals against the FMDV, and was not as effective as the conventional live viral vaccine. The paper also described the process of getting a particularly virulent strain of FMDV, "by serial passage of FMDV O1 Lausanne in pigs", a process designed to generate new recombinant viruses. This work was submitted to a journal last October and published earlier this year [3].

Work on genetically engineered foot and mouth vaccines have been going on for the past 20 years, for the ostensible reason that the conventional live vaccine had been unsatisfactory [4],

"Production problems, the risk of live virus release, poor inactivation, antigen instability and the lack of cross-serotype protection of inactivated whole virus vaccines."

The Sunday Express reported in April that a routine audit in the UK Government's bio-warfare research laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire, revealed that a container of foot-and-mouth virus was missing two months before the first official outbreak. The newspaper also claims it has seen documents confirming that some sheep carried the virus long before the outbreak was confirmed on February 20, 2001. A Welsh vet says the virus was in Wales as early as January [5].

Was the outbreak caused by the FMDV used to challenge vaccinated animals, either the strain from Porton Down or the virulent strain resulting from serial passage in pigs, which has escaped from one of the labs? Could it have been due the virus from infected pigs escaping, or to an entirely new virus generated by recombination between the challenge virus and the vaccine? These questions could easily be answered by molecular genetic analysis of the virus or viruses from infected livestock in the outbreak.

But why are governments interested to test foot and mouth vaccines around the world when there has not been major outbreaks in any of the countries? Britain had not had the disease for 34 years, and the USA and Canada had not been affected since 1929.

Investigations by the Evening Chronicle [6] uncovered that the United States, Canada and Mexico began preparing for 'a simulated outbreak of foot and mouth disease' last October. According to papers leaked from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the exercise - which took place between November 6 and 9 - was 'for the purpose of emergency planning'. The papers reportedly state: "This exercise is the first of its kind and provides all three countries with a unique opportunity to apply their emergency response plans in the event of a real disease outbreak."

At the same time, the UK Government was reported to be preparing its own 'contingency plans' for a foot and mouth outbreak - even though the last foot and mouth outbreak here was in 1967. The Evening Chronicle reported that MAFF officials began telephoning timber merchants as early as December asking if they could supply wood for pyres, should foot and mouth strike.

Just days after the recent deadly terrorist attacks in the United States, lawmakers and experts are predicting assaults by biological weapons besides chemical and nuclear [7]. Representative Christopher Shays, the Connecticut Republican who heads the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, said it's not a question of if there will be a biological or chemical weapons attack, but when, and of what magnitude. Shays, whose committee has held 17 hearings on terror threats, said the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon underscored the need to step up efforts to combat terrorism.

This was echoed across the Atlantic. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged immediate attention to the "next threat to our collective security", noting that the people responsible for Tuesday's attacks would stop at nothing.

"It should now be obvious to everyone that people who have the fanaticism and capability to fly an airliner laden with passengers and fuel into a skyscraper will not be deterred by human decency from deploying chemical and biological weapons, missiles or nuclear weapons or other forms of mass destruction, if these are available to them," Straw said.

But if the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK was the result of a bio-warfare simulation or genetic engineering experiments gone wrong, we don't even have to wait for the terrorist attacks.

The real lesson for our political leaders is that there can be no end to terrorist attacks with increasingly more deadly means, until and unless they make real effort to end all conflicts, and to bring these deadly weapons and experiments under international peaceful control.

(Thanks to postings by Mark Griffiths

Article first published 24/9/01


  1. "Lies And More Lies" by Ian Gurney, 4 September 2001,
  2. "Lab returns to its roots, Plum Island mobilizes for its key role in warding off foot-and-mouth disease" by Ridgely Ochs, Newsday September 4, 2001.
  3. Induction of a protective response in swine vaccinated with DNA encoding foot-and mouth disease virus empty capsid proteins and the 3D RNA polymerase. Journal of General Virology 2001, 82, 1713-24.
  6. "Animal Virus Ordeal Shock Report" by Nic Outterside, Evening Chronicle, June 29, 2001. 1&method=full
  7. "Attack on US raises specter of germ war, or worse" by Andrea Shalal-Esa, Washington (Reuters), September 15

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