Scientists create new vaccine for 'devastating' animal virus

The Oxford Times: Farmer David Christensen. Picture: OX57958 Damian Halliwell Buy this photo » Farmer David Christensen. Picture: OX57958 Damian Halliwell

AN OXFORDSHIRE farmer has welcomed the breakthrough discovery of a new vaccine against foot and mouth.

David Christensen, who keeps 1,200 dairy and beef cattle at Kingston Hill Farm in Kingston Bagpuize, said: “This is very positive because none of us wants to see the disruption, hassle and slaughter.

“It has an absolutely devastating effect on the farming community.”

The breakthrough against foot and mouth – last seen in the UK in 2001 – was made during research led by David Stuart, professor of structural biology at Oxford University’s Department of Medicine.

The key advantage of the new vaccine – which will not be available commercially for several years – is that it does not need to use the live foot and mouth virus to work, making it safer to use and store than the existing option.

Highly advanced techniques, including using intense beams of light, have allowed scientists to visualise something a billion times smaller than a pinhead, to improve the atom-by-atom design of the new vaccine.

Prof Stuart, who carried out the research with Dr Bryan Charleston, head of the livestock viral diseases programme at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, said: “What we have achieved here is close to the holy grail of foot-and-mouth vaccines.

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“Foot and mouth disease is one of the most economically important diseases in livestock worldwide. With approximately three to four billion doses of vaccine administered every year, it is a massive global problem.”

Prof Stuart, who is also life science director at Harwell-based Diamond Light Source, added: “In principle, the new vaccine should have significant advantages because it is safe and can be made in environments that do not require extreme facilities to prevent the live virus from escaping.”

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said of the breakthrough: “This is a great achievement for UK researchers.”

Twelve years ago, farmers in the county were reeling from an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the first since the 1960s.

Mr Christensen, 45, said access to his farm, run by the family for the past 44 years, was restricted during the 2001 outbreak, but cattle were not affected by the disease.

Although Oxfordshire was not as badly affected as other counties, infected animals had to be culled and farms, wildlife parks, woodlands and roads were closed, with sporting and farming events cancelled.

During the crisis, 865 sheep and lambs were shot at a farm at Little Chesterton, near Bicester.

In the outbreak, which lasted for more than seven months, six million sheep, cows and pigs were slaughtered nationwide in an attempt to halt the disease.

The cost to the UK was £3.1bn.

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