Scrapie gives cattle BSE-like disease

April 27, 2001 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Government scientists have infected cattle with another BSE-like disease using scrapie from sheep, in an experiment that raises new questions about the origins of BSE and whether current food safety measures are satisfactory.

Two cows developed the symptoms 18 months after injections into their brains of material from sheep brains infected with scrapie, a disease long considered harmless to humans. But it might be five years before the experiment's significance can be assessed.

If scrapie was considered a danger after all, there would be seismic shockwaves for the political, scientific and medical establishments. British farming could be dealt another blow, since it would be far harder to remove all potentially infective parts of sheep from food.

There may, however, be no significance for human health.

The two animals put down after showing clinical signs of illness will be tested to see whether the disease behaves similarly or differently from BSE or scrapie.

The experiment is being carried out by the veterinary laboratories agency. Officials were insisting last night that the new disease might be neither scrapie nor BSE.

One official, Danny Matthews, said it was likely that the results "of this one study will not be interpretable until we have the results of other studies that are under way".

The experiment, the first in Britain, started in July 1999, 13 years after BSE was identified in cattle and three years after the admission people were probably dying because they had eaten infected cows.

Any "scrapie in cattle" would not be as worrying as BSE in sheep, which has been caused in laboratories. There is no evidence that this has happened naturally, but the government has contingency plans, including widespread sheep culls.

The warning of delays caused consternation at the food standards agency, which reviews all controls against BSE-like diseases when there is emerging scientific evidence. A spokesman said scientists "have said to our people that this result is uninterpretable in scientific and policy terms we simply cannot scrutinise things that are uninterpretable."

Until recently the idea that scrapie from sheep remains in cattle feed had turned into the more deadly BSE was the frontrunner among explanations for BSE.

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