Fiasco Fuelled by Fear; Mail Analysis of the Phillips Report on the Official Ignorance That Allowed Health Crisis to Escalate

Daily Mail (London), October 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

Fiasco Fuelled by Fear; Mail Analysis of the Phillips Report on the Official Ignorance That Allowed Health Crisis to Escalate


THE inquiry took two years and nine months to complete at a cost of [pounds sterling]27million. Lord Phillips heard evidence from almost 1,000 witnesses - including scientists, former ministers, senior civil servants and families of victims - and condensed it into a 16-volume report. Here, Mail writers takes an in-depth look at the report's central findings.

It all started with a single mutant cow

THE report confirms what most scientists believe - that the BSE epidemic in cattle was caused by the use of meat and bonemeal in their feed.

Alarmingly, it says individual cattle were probably first infected in the 1970s, meaning hundreds of thousands more people could have been put at risk from eating beef over a far longer period than generally acknowledged.

Though the origin of the disease can never be known with certainty, it probably started from a single cow with a genetic mutation.

By the time the first brain of a cow with BSE was examined by scientists in September 1985, there had already been several generations of infection.

The disease spread in a terrifying chain reaction, with material rendered from one cow used to make feed infecting hundreds more. A tiny amount of infected material can cause infection, the report concludes.

It says it was bovine material in feed that caused the epidemic, not sheep material infected with scrapie, as was widely believed.

By turning cows into cannibals, the meat and livestock industry recycled the disease.

The first case identified came from Pit-sham Farm in Sussex. The vet called to examine the herd was sufficiently alarmed that he called in the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey.

Official recognition of the discovery of a new disease came in 1986.

By the mid-1980s large numbers of people were unwittingly eating beefburgers, cheap mince and pies infected with BSE.

The day the terrible truth dawned

IN September 1995 James Ironside, a scientist at the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh, peered into his microscope and was confronted by a large, circular cluster of flower-shaped structures that had taken hold inside a teenage victim of vCJD.

After examining tissue from a second teenager, Ironside was forced to contemplate the awful possibility that BSE had spread to humans.

Further fears arose in 1997 when studies suggested vCJD could be transmitted through blood.

And in August this year, a paper from Professor John Collinge at St Mary's Hospital, London, indicated the existence of a hidden 'subclinical' form of BSE which produced no symptoms but could nonetheless be infectious.

This raised the frightening possibility that not only cattle but sheep, pigs and poultry may harbour the disease.

The possibility that BSE might have been transmitted to sheep then been misdiagnosed as scrapie, was recognised as early as 1987.

Research to establish whether this has happened is still being carried out.

For the moment, the report concludes, it remains 'perhaps the most important unanswered question about the BSE epidemic'.

Cover-up that kept nation in the dark

DETAILS of a shocking cover-up by Government vets as BSE began to emerge in the nation's cattle herds are revealed in the report.

Some of its strongest criticisms are reserved for the responses made in the early days of the crisis, which centred on keeping the public firmly in the dark.

The first brain from a cow with BSE reached the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) in September 1985.

By the end of 1986, experts at the CVL had identified the possibility that cattle had developed a spongiform encephalopathy that was transmissible in the same way as scrapie was in sheep.

Raymond Bradley, head of the pathology department, circulated a note to colleagues warning of the potentially devastating consequences. …

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