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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK
Site update 'delays bluetongue vaccine'
By Palab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Police road block near site of bluetongue case
A protection zone was set up after bluetongue was found in Suffolk

An effective vaccine against bluetongue could be delayed because of August's foot-and-mouth outbreak, the National Farmers' Union has said.

Pharmaceutical firm Merial Animal Health says it could develop a vaccine by the first half of next year.

But it has been unable to begin production until measures to improve biosecurity at the government-run Pirbright facility near Guildford, Surrey are brought up to standard.

Merial shares the site with the government's Institute for Animal Health (IAH).

The inquiry into the leak of the foot-and-mouth virus identified several breaches in biosecurity at Pirbright.

It suggested these were largely the responsibility of the Department for Food and Rural Affairs.

Until those breaches are fixed no vaccines can be produced on the site.

Cold weather

The bluetongue outbreak has meant that it has now become urgent to bring the laboratories up to standard.

We must have this vaccine ready for use before the midges become active by the middle of next summer
Anthony Gibson, NFU

The Merial Pharmaceutical company has developed a promising vaccine against the disease and the company says it needs to begin manufacturing soon in order to have enough ready in time.

According to Anthony Gibson of the National Farmers Union, checks to ensure that the site is now safe, risk delaying vaccine production.

"We don't want to run a risk of a further release of virus from the Pirbright facility," he said.

"But we must have this vaccine ready for use before the midges (that spread the virus) become active by the middle of next summer."

The current bluetongue outbreak is likely to settle down as winter arrives. That's because the midges that spread the virus don't like cold weather.

The worry though is that it'll re-emerge in the summer.

'More anger'

Defra says it hopes that problems on its Pirbright site will have been sorted out within weeks.

But Professor Brian Spratt - who revealed the problems with the government run site in an official inquiry - said that there was no reason why Defra could not allow Merial to begin production now.

"Bluetongue is not directly transmissible to livestock, it needs midges, " he said.

"So I think the risk to livestock is pretty small.

And I don't really see why they can't start to produce a vaccine at the Merial site for bluetongue."

There's likely be more anger from farmers if a vaccine isn't ready in time.

Many of them will blame their misfortune on Defra because the department was made aware of problems at the Pirbright site several years ago but funding had not been made available to deal with them.

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