Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Anthrax import tests 'difficult'

The inquiry was told testing for anthrax remained difficult

A top scientist has told a hearing it remains "notoriously difficult" to identify drums infected with anthrax before they are imported to the UK.

Dr Graham Lloyd was giving evidence to a fatal accident inquiry into the 2006 death of Christopher "Pascal" Norris.

He said it was "reasonable" to conclude Mr Norris had picked up the disease from contact with infected drums.

However, he said there were a "lot of uncertainties" about whether simply playing drums could release the spores.

Mr Norris, of Stobs village, near Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, died in 2006 after inhaling anthrax.

The fatal accident inquiry is hoping to establish exactly where he picked up the disease and why he was the only person affected.

It's going to be notoriously difficult to be 100% certain that any sampling is going to give you the result that you are looking for
Dr Graham Lloyd
Dr Lloyd, a consultant clinical scientist in novel and dangerous pathogens at the Health Protection Agency, told the inquiry his team tested samples from Mr Norris's body.

They found a rare strain of anthrax not seen in the UK before.

Dr Lloyd said the agency had an increased awareness of anthrax following the 2001 attacks in America.

Mr Norris had been attending West African drumming classes in the Borders and was known to have been using animal skins to make drums at home.

Suspecting Mr Norris had caught the disease while handling infected animal skins, the scientists tested his cottage but found no trace of the anthrax.

Tests later found it in the home of drumming teachers Geraldine and Nansady Keita, in a van they used to transport drums and a garage at Mrs Keita's parents' house where drums had been stored.

Same strain

Smailholm village hall, where classes were held and drums stored, had to be decontaminated after anthrax was found on furniture and floors.

It was also found on three drums taken from the Keitas for testing after Mr Norris's death.

Dr Lloyd said the strain of anthrax discovered appeared to be the same as Mr Norris had contracted.

Fiscal depute Martin Macari asked: "Are you able to say how likely it is that Pascal Norris must have got anthrax from being in contact with drums that were at these locations?"

Pascal Norris
Mr Norris died in 2006 in the Borders after inhaling anthrax

Dr Lloyd replied: "It would seem a reasonable conclusion, yes".

Mr Macari asked if it was possible that anthrax spores could be released by simply playing drums.

"You could say it's a possibility but there are a lot of uncertainties," Dr Lloyd added.

He was asked to explain why initial tests on the drumming teachers' drums had failed to find anthrax, but later tests had proved positive.

He said it was difficult to be certain with anthrax and that initial checks often missed it.

Mr Macari asked how the tests could tell which drums coming into the UK had anthrax on them.

"It's going to be notoriously difficult to be 100% certain that any sampling is going to give you the result that you are looking for - it depends on the style of drum and the state of it," said Dr Lloyd.

The inquiry, before Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen QC, continues.

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