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Saturday, 8 December, 2001, 15:16 GMT
Disease test 'could prevent new crisis'
Vet checks for disease
The new test could give results in just seven hours
A new test that could cut the diagnosis time for foot-and-mouth disease from days to hours has been developed by British scientists.

Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it could make a significant difference in handling any future outbreaks.

Many experts believe delays in providing accurate diagnoses contributed to the spread of the disease across the UK.


To have a rapid test that can be done on the spot is going to be very useful and very important

Professor Hugh Pennington
But Defra says the new method of screening DNA from animal blood samples could provide results within seven hours.

Professor Chris Bostock, the director of the Institute of Animal Health which developed the new polymerase chain reaction test, said it relied on testing foot-and-mouth's unique genetic material.

He said it combined the sensitivity and reliability of current tests.

Unnecessary slaughter

Leading food safety expert Professor Hugh Pennington, of Aberdeen University, said there was a real need for a better and quicker test.

"What the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth has shown us is that making the diagnosis of foot-and-mouth disease on the farm can be quite difficult - you overdiagnose it sometimes so animals are unnecessarily killed.

Pyre of cow carcasses
Nearly four million animals were slaughtered in the foot-and-mouth outbreak
"You can also underdiagnose it so animals continue to spread the infection," he told BBC News 24.

He said officials were unable to nip the crisis in the bud, which had allowed the virus to spread before people realised it was there.

If the test had been ready in February, when the first case was diagnosed, Professor Pennington believes the extent of the outbreak may have been avoided.

"It might have been localised to one or two places," he said.

"It would have been easier to diagnose the ones really spreading the virus and one would not have had to diagnose on suspicion rather than actually on definite proof."

Test combination

But Professor Pennington said the new method would have to go through a series of validation tests under field conditions before it was ready.

"The expectation is that this will pass these tests with a little modification here and there."

Defra believes the process could be used alongside a number of other tests, to improve diagnosis and help stamp out foot-and-mouth.

A Defra spokeswoman said: "We welcome this technology and we are constantly looking to develop new technology to help with the diagnosis of disease.

"We've been working very closely with the Institute of Animal Health on these tests."

Disease-free

Two tests for foot-and-mouth currently exist.

One is quick but relies on scientists knowing which strain of the disease is being dealt with.

The other works on all strains of the virus, but can take up to four days to produce positive results.

During this year's foot-and-mouth crisis 2,030 cases were confirmed in the UK.

There have been no new confirmed outbreaks since 30 September and most of the country is now classified as foot-and-mouth free, with only a few counties still "at risk" from the disease.

See also:

07 Dec 01 | UK
Life after foot-and-mouth
02 Nov 01 | England
Foot-and-mouth fears fade
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