Safety at Spanish BSE lab queried

December 8, 2000

Spain's BSE testing centre is fighting allegations that laboratory conditions at its University of Zaragoza base are unsafe.

There has been a complaint that dissection equipment is shared with other departments and staff have not been informed of possible health risks. Juan Badiola, director of the National Reference Centre for Infectious Spongiform Encephalitis and chief scientific adviser to the government on BSE, rejects the allegations but admits the laboratory is severely under-resourced.

Testing procedures follow European guidelines. All samples are manipulated inside a secure plastic cabinet and de-activated before removal by staff in full protective clothing, said Professor Badiola. "How could they think I would expose my staff and myself to such a risk?" he asked.

The centre was examined by Zaragoza's risk evaluation committee following a complaint about "irregularities" by staff from an adjacent laboratory in late November. Inquiry results will be published soon.

The centre consists of a single laboratory of 20m² where five scientists and two support staff work. Salaries and running costs are mainly covered by the university and the European Union. The ministry of agriculture, which asked for the centre to be set up in 1996, contributes just euros 48,081 (£30,000) a year.

BSE shot into the Spanish public eye on November 22 when the centre confirmed the first case of BSE in a Spanish cow on a small farm in northwest Carballedo.

Although no more cases have been found, the government ordered an extensive testing programme for 300,000 cows of more than 30 months or which have been imported. Professor Badiola is "moderately optimistic" about the situation. "It doesn't mean we can relax, but in Britain there are 180,000 cases, in Spain, only one."

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