Right man at right time

June 22, 2001

FSA chairman Sir John Krebs played a pivotal role in the bid to control the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Caroline Davis talked to him.

In March, after the first cases of foot-and-mouth disease were confirmed, an ad hoc meeting took place between a group of scientists and government officials. Neil Ferguson, a member of Roy Anderson's epidemiology team at Imperial College, London, spoke first. In a slick PowerPoint presentation, he reported his team's analysis of the outbreak. He explained that under government policy there could be up to 1,000 new cases a day by early May. But the epidemic could be contained if infected animals were killed within 24 hours and animals on neighbouring farms within 48 hours.

Veterinary epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse stood up next. He explained that his Edinburgh University team had taken a very different approach. But the results were equally bleak. At the present rate, the number of cases was doubling every nine days. He barely needed to go into details. The bottom line was the same.

Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency and the man who called the meeting, says: "It was a very powerful and electric moment because this was really saying the thing was out of control."

When the government appointed Krebs head of the new FSA, consumer groups were concerned at his lack of experience in the food industry. The Oxford academic, previously chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, was a zoologist who specialised in birds.

But Krebs believes he was always the right man for the job. What is more, he may have played a pivotal role in the handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The FSA was created last year, a fusion of departments from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Department of Health. Accountable to Parliament through the health secretary, the agency operates at arm's length from the government, developing legislation and publishing advice independently. While Defra looks after agriculture issues, the FSA was designed to protect food from the abattoir to the table.

The first cases of foot-and-mouth disease were discovered on February 19 by a veterinary inspector from the Meat Hygiene Service, an executive agency of the FSA. Although confident that the disease did not threaten food safety, the FSA found that the subsequent closing of abattoirs was a serious worry. The MHS's 1,600 inspectors are paid on an hourly basis by the meat industry and, without the abattoirs, the FSA was facing a bill approaching £1 million.

"It was very important for us to understand what the size of the epidemic would be and how long it was going to go on," Krebs explains.

At this time, Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, and agriculture minister Nick Brown were predicting the outbreak would be contained within days. But Krebs was still worried - foot-and-mouth is notoriously difficult to detect in sheep, and he feared it may have spread more widely than anyone had predicted. He decided to seek advice from the academic community - population epidemiologists and mathematical modellers of infectious disease.

On March 6, experts from the Institute of Animal Health, Imperial College and Cambridge, Warwick, Oxford and Edinburgh universities met with Krebs at the FSA. He asked what information they could offer on the scale of the outbreak and how they thought it could be managed.

Krebs says he called the meeting because Maff already had its hands full with the epidemic. "I was trying to be helpful," he explains.

The group told him that the time from diagnosis to slaughter was the key. But they warned they could not make any predictions unless they had access to data.

Krebs contacted Maff and within a week there was action. "It was agreed that the experts would be given the data - whatever they wanted - and any of the groups could go ahead and model it," he says. "They were given ten days to see what they could come up with."

The chief scientific adviser to the government, David King, was at the meeting of March 21 when the chilling projections were made. He went straight to the prime minister to alert him, promptly took charge of Krebs' expert group, which began to meet daily and fed directly into government policy, and publicly admitted that things were out of control.

The new approach was adopted - a week later the daily number of new cases peaked at 49. On April 11, King told a press conference: "The flattening-out of the epidemic has now been confirmed." The epidemiologists' strategy appeared to be working.

Krebs ascribes the success of the meeting to luck. The team he put together comprised the best epidemiologists and mathematical modellers in the country, many of whom he knew personally as a colleague of both Anderson and former chief scientific adviser Sir Robert May in Oxford's zoology department. "I happened to be the right person at the right time in the right place to draw together the right group," he says.

To a degree, the government's lack of foresight provided the opportunity. Although there are many standing committees of experts who can be called on at short notice to advise the government - there is even one to advise on the possibility of an asteroid hitting the Earth - animal disease is not one of them.

The epidemic is not over yet - the first two weeks in June saw an average of five new cases each day. Last Friday, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons called for an independent inquiry into the outbreak once it is over. Although many academic veterinary scientists were content with the government's policies, a survey for The THES revealed some anger that mathematical modellers' advice had overtaken that of experienced vets.

Meanwhile, Krebs still spends a day each week on his research in Oxford. He is studying the effects of increasingly intensified farming on formerly common birds such as the skylark.

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