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Genetic data shows second phase of Foot-and-Mouth infection did not originate from Pirbright

13 December 2007

Genetic analysis by scientists at the Institute for Animal Health has shown that the first and second phases of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) infections of the 2007 outbreak comprise a single chain of transmission events. The second phase could not have separately and directly originated from the site housing IAH’s Pirbright Laboratory and the vaccine company Merial.

IAH and its sponsoring body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), strongly refute unsubstantiated and incorrect claims in The Times newspaper on 13 December that the second phase of infection in the Virginia Water area was caused by infected soil removed from Pirbright.

IAH scientists have shown through genetic sequencing data prepared for Defra, and passed to Government vets in September during the outbreak to inform their response, that the FMD viruses found in the Virginia Water area were derived from the earlier infected premises in Normandy, Surrey and not from a reintroduction from the Pirbright site. The second phase was a continuation of the first phase of the outbreak in August. By studying the genetic fingerprints of the FMD virus recovered from the different infected premises in the 2007 outbreak scientists have been able to determine the probable sequence of transmission between Infected Premises.

As the virus passes from animal to animal and farm to farm, it accumulates changes in its genetic code and from these changes, the chain of relationship of the viruses during a series of infections can be determined. From this it is possible to establish with considerable molecular precision which viruses are descendants of which parent viruses. The data have been peer reviewed by a group of leading scientists at the request of Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser and are due to published shortly. The independent expert peer review process has accepted the study’s conclusions that the second phase of the outbreak originated from the first phase and not from a separate release from the Pirbright site.


Notes to editors

Scientists at the Institute for Animal Health’s Pirbright Laboratory have determined the sequence of every gene of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) viruses associated with each of the farms infected in the 2007 outbreak.

This has produced evidence that makes it possible to identify the probable origin of the virus at each outbreak.

This is possible because the genetic material (RNA) of FMDV changes (mutates) as the virus grows.

It is usual to find four or so mutations as it moves from farm to farm; its fingerprint changes, a particular fingerprint being associated with a particular farm.

About Institute for Animal Health

The Institute for Animal Health (IAH) is a world-leading centre of excellence, and the major centre in the UK, for research on infectious diseases of livestock. We have two sites, located at Compton in Berkshire; and Pirbright in Surrey. The IAH is one of seven research institutes sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Our mission is ‘to deliver high quality fundamental, strategic and applied science into infectious animal disease and, from that knowledge, to advance veterinary and medical science, enhance the sustainability of livestock farming, improve animal welfare, safeguard the supply and safety of food, and protect public health and the environment.’


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC sponsors seven research institutes, including the Institute for Animal Health.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299