Possible UK lab leak of foot and mouth virus

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LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) Britain said today the foot and mouth virus may have leaked at the same laboratory at the centre of an outbreak earlier this year, although scientists believed it had not escaped into the wider environment.

Environment Minister Hilary Benn said officials at the Merial facility at Pirbright in Surrey, south-east England, believed there had been a probable unintended release of live foot and mouth (FMD) virus into a contained drainage system.

It was first discovered on Nov. 19 and operations at Merial stopped immediately, he added.

Government inspectors visited the site yesterday.

''The inspection team judge that while it is possible that live FMD virus had entered the contained drainage system, from their discussions and the evidence gathered they are assured that live virus has not been released to the environment,'' Benn said.

Benn said Merial had initially discovered a shortfall in the quantity of foot and mouth (FMD) virus recovered from production batches from the previous week and then identified technical problems with a valve.

Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it had suspended Merial's licence allowing the use of foot and mouth and bluetongue viruses for vaccine production.

The Pirbright facility was at the centre of a foot and mouth outbreak in August, when an investigation into the cause highlighted biosecurity breaches at the government-funded site.

That outbreak was confined to a relatively small area in southeast England, in stark contrast to a devastating outbreak in 2001 when the virus swept through the country.

That led to the mass slaughter of more than 6 million farm animals at a cost of around 17.55 billion dollars.

The August outbreak sparked a ban on UK livestock and meat exports and national curbs on moving farm animals.

''It's extremely concerning that part of the system at Merial has failed. However, we have been reassured by Defra that the secondary decontamination systems have worked effectively and that no live virus has escaped into the environment,'' Britain's National Farmers Union (NFU) said in a statement.

''Given what has happened this summer, and the massive financial loss still being felt by many farmers, we are naturally very sensitive about foot and mouth disease. To say we're relieved we don't have another FMD problem is a huge understatement.'' REUTERS RSA RN2125

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