Bad news travelled too slowly. As civil servants face the BSE inquiry, Fred Pearce reports that experts of the disease informally (below) and hears a frustrated, ignored researcher (right)
The government's softly-softly approach to BSE in the mid-1980s angered and alarmed several specialists on spongiform encephalopathies in the government research community. One who made his feelings known then, and has repeated them to the inquiry, was Alan Dickinson, the director of the government's Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh in the 1980s.
In early 1987, he learned of the rising BSE epidemic and, he told the inquiry, grew increasingly concerned about its management by scientists and civil servants. "By mid-1987 it was obvious to me that the BSE outbreak was getting out of control. I had heard of nearly 100 widely distributed cases. In August 1987 I said to Maitland Mackie (the chairman of the Agriculture and Food Research Council's animals committee): 'If this BSE issue is not handled properly it will destroy the meat industry'."
His opinions, as head of the United Kingdom's major centre of expertise in spongiform encephalopathies, should have carried weight. But they did not.
In September 1987, he told the inquiry, "as there seemed to be no rational end to the research shamblesI I chose to retire two years early." He believes that his unit's unique expertise could swiftly have got to the bottom of the outbreak and its implications, but that it was systematically frozen out.
"The problem stemmed from aspects of the administrative culture dominating veterinary issues and from the progressive weakening of the autonomy of British science," Dickinson said. He argued that the approach agreed by civil servants and scientists at the Central Veterinary Laboratory - not to rock the boat until the science was done - was the worst possible. "With an outbreak (of BSE) being fuelled by recycling of the infectious agent, speed of decision-taking was crucial. It should have depended on the judgement of the most qualified individuals, rather than based on waiting for scientific evidence specific to BSE in cattle."
Dickinson was such an expert. He had worked in an Edinburgh-based team on scrapie in sheep since the 1950s and become its head when the NPU was created in 1981. His concern had long since extended from sheep to the risks to humans from spongiform encephalopathies. In 1976, he told the inquiry, he had warned the Medical Research Council that CJD, the human form, could be spread by contamination of human growth hormone. And he devised a method of eliminating the risk. He knew scrapie-like diseases did not normally jump species, but there were exceptions. Mink had been infected via raw mince in the 1960s.
"The matter should have been referred to the NPU for rapid confirmation of diagnosis, and we should have been given control of the necessary research and been in the forefront in advising on the actions to take," he told the inquiry. Instead, control was kept with the less expert but more politically docile CVL. Had they had control, he said, the first emphasis would have been to make policy based on the judgement of proven experts, rather than waiting for scientific proof.
There were, he says, only "two or three UK experts" on scrapie-like diseases. If given charge, they could "have reduced the extent to which the epidemic was able to progress". Discussing the "prolonged early delays prior to 1988", Dickinson says, that once a spongiform encephalopathy was suspected as the cause, "proof need have taken only a few days rather than over a year."
His unit struggled for research funds. Contracts to research BSE were "given disproportionately to those without previous experience", he says. Meanwhile, the NPU's experts "had their work severely hindered by grant recipients demanding precious materials, plus instruction in the ABCs of the subject".
Clearly there was no love lost between the CVL in Surrey and the NPU in Edinburgh. But Dickinson's case sounds more substantial than sour grapes.
He told of a kind of underground network discussing "scrapie in a cow" at a time when the man in charge of the findings had not even told his bosses or colleagues. "I was never formally informed that BSE existed," Dickinson told the inquiry. But he knew sooner than many, including, apparently, Wilesmith. "My first news came in early 1987 from my colleague Hugh Fraser, who had been discreetly shown slides of cattle brain by one of the CVL staff."
Dickinson also revealed how critical findings from an official review of the state of British research into livestock diseases had apparently been suppressed. The committee, created in late 1985 by the Agriculture and Food Research Council, was chaired by Peter Wildy, professor of pathology at the University of Cambridge and an expert on scrapie.
By Dickinson's account, Wildy often confided his frustration that "the view of the clear majority (of the committee) was being prevented by MAFF from becoming a committee recommendation". Wildy died in early 1987, before his committee's report was completed. But the final report contained few of Wildy's severe private criticisms. Recommendations that survived were later rejected by the research council.
According to Dickinson, "the committee had concluded, early in 1986, that the overall situation at the Central Veterinary Laboratory was very unsatisfactory - more so than at other labs they had visited." This was precisely the time when Wells was failing to act on the findings of his junior pathologist that she had found a case of "scrapie in a cow". Wildy's plan, Dickinson says, had been to "recommend that the CVL restrict its duties to the statutory work, and must only become involved in research 'back to back' with outside proven specialists, the latter to be in control of the research". This would have been a serious indictment of the laboratory about to take the scientific lead in handling the most costly peacetime disaster in British history.
The research failings may not have ended. Given the government scientific service's failure to pursue fears of BSE, there is now growing concern that BSE may have infected the country's sheep. The fear is that BSE may be misdiagnosed as scrapie. But, unlike scrapie, it could infect humans. As a precaution, sheep brains, spinal cord and spleen are banned from the human food chain. But some experts believe it could lurk in other organs. Stanley Prusiner, a world authority on the spongiform encephalopathies, told the inquiry last month that without a test for BSE in sheep, we have no way of knowing if this is happening. History, some fear, could be about to repeat itself.