Royal Society has 'free hand' to run inquiry

August 17, 2001

The decision to leave the running of the scientific inquiry into foot-and-mouth disease to the Royal Society was welcomed this week despite widespread criticism of the government for ruling out a public inquiry, writes Caroline Davis.

Sir Brian Follett, chairman of the society's inquiry into infectious diseases in livestock, said the Royal Society had an "entirely free hand", so the report will be independent. In a letter to the Royal Society, the government wrote, "It is essential that the study should be clearly independent. Government will not want to intrude into your inquiry in any way."

The government also ordered inquiries into the handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the future of farming.

Sir Brian, former vice-chancellor of Warwick University and an animal physiologist, said the RS report would not be confined to foot-and-mouth and swine fever. It will look at up to 15 "epizootic" diseases, ones that are transmissible with the potential to spread rapidly over borders, and with big economic or public health risks.

The inquiry will be the fifth into foot-and-mouth in the past 100 years. The difference each time, Sir Brian said, was the context.

The 1967 foot-and-mouth outbreak affected mostly cattle and pigs. This year, sheep suffered most. Today, people and animals are far more mobile.

Over the same period, the UK has become predominantly an exporter society, Sir Brian said. It has become more concerned with health and food safety and ethical issues in animal husbandry. Added to this, global warming had shifted the northern limits of viral disease, as had the increased transport of foods, he said.

Sir Brian said that the crucial question will be: "Has anything happened scientifically that enabled one to look at fighting this disease in ways that we've traditionally not done?" The Royal Society is selecting a committee of about 12 to work with Sir Brian. More than half of members will be vets and experts in viruses and epidemiology. Others will be "stakeholders" such as farmers, consumer group representatives and food safety experts.

The next step is to call for evidence. Some of the committee may seek advice from overseas experts. The inquiry will look at transmission and prevention tools as well as control mechanisms should an outbreak occur.

But some scientists are still unhappy that the inquiry will not be public. Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, head of veterinary cytogenetics at Cambridge University and former member of the BSE inquiry committee, said the decision not to hold a public inquiry was "a step backwards, another important lesson from BSE forgotten". He said the government had risked further loss of public trust.

Roger Eddy, senior vice-president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, said he was confident that the Royal Society report would be independent and published "untampered".

But he warned that issues could be lost in gaps between inquiries. "(The Royal Society) should move beyond science and look at how science is used to determine policy and how advice is managed in the field. We need to know if there was political interference with veterinary advice."

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