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Scotland at last orders 12 million doses
of BTV8 vaccine

James Irvine

Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire

Filed 28 Jun 08

Yesterday, 27th June, the Scottish Government announced that it had ordered 12 million doses of Bluetongue serotype 8 vaccine from Merial (1). The news is welcome but with a sigh of relief that says "At last! But why has it taken so very long?"

We are not told when the 12 million doses will be delivered, but can only assume that this will be before the start of the Vector Free Period (VFP) in December. Last year the VFP ran from 20th December 2007 to 15th March 2008. That is when Scotland's Chief Veterinary Officer (SCVO) wants Scottish livestock farmers to carry out a compulsory programme of vaccination against this strain of bluetongue that arrived in England for the first time in September 2007 (2).

To date 136 livestock holdings in the UK have been confirmed to have been infected with bluetongue virus.

England and Wales ordered 22.5 million doses between them on 20th December 2007 (and more subsequently when Defra realised that they did not have enough), with vaccination on a voluntary basis starting in early May. It is a race to see whether the timing of the vaccination, the percentage of livestock vaccinated and the geographical distribution of effective vaccination, will be enough to prevent an aggressive resurgence of bluetongue disease in England and Wales over the coming months. In the absence of vaccination such a surge would be expected to occur in July, August and on through to late December, when the female midges keen to lay their eggs take a blood meal from ruminants, and thereby spread the disease. Will enough livestock in England and Wales be vaccinated in time, remembering that for cattle it takes two doses and two months for fully effective vaccination to be achieved? It will be a close run race.

Scotland remains designated by the OIE as a bluetongue disease-free country. There has been no evidence that bluetongue has spread in Scotland - yet. The EC policy of forbidding vaccination until the disease arrives is central to the striking lack of disease control that has caused so much devastation of the livestock industry in northern continental Europe since 2006.

But, whatever the epidemiological modellers may say, Scotland is at risk from bluetongue as early as this summer and late August. Quite apart from the difficulties of accurately predicting detailed weather conditions, little is known how the bluetongue virus will behave in such a northern country where it has never been before. The EPIC Report on the threat of bluetongue disease to Scotland, chaired by Professor Gunn of Aberdeen and involving six of Scotland's scientific establishments and Pirbright, has had its remit extended and has not yet published its findings. Although the risk of bluetongue reaching Scotland may be thought by the SCVO and his advisers to be low, the consequences of it happening would be dire. We should not be taking such a risk.

The Scottish Government Press Release states that Scotland will have 2 million doses in the event of bluetongue disease arriving in Scotland before the VFP.

There is clearly a queue to obtain supplies of BTV8 vaccine, such is the belated massive demand across Europe. A number of vaccine manufacturers are in the market big time: such as Intervet, Merial and Fort Dodge. If bluetongue disease arrives in Scotland earlier than the modellers predict, Scotland is likely to be in big trouble. The 2 million doses promised in such an event may well not be enough to contain the spread of the disease. Movement restrictions would be very damaging to the industry. Suckler herds on less favoured agricultural land (85% of the land in Scotland) are struggling to survive as it is.

Also worrying is the statement in the Press Release that, in the event of an outbreak of bluetongue disease in Scotland before the VFP, the intention is to make the consequent obligatory Protection and Surveillance Zones as small as possible. That may be the best option from the point of view of trade restrictions in the short term, but it is not the best way of controlling spread and therefore of protecting trade in the longer run.

It is axiomatic that vaccination is best used before a threatened disease arrives, not waiting until it has arrived. But when will the EC get round to recognising that axiom?

Inappropriate EC rules regarding vaccination in disease-free countries, prolonged discussions as to who was going to pay for the vaccine and the vaccination process, lengthy discussion as to whether vaccination was to be voluntary or compulsory, and whether vaccination was to be done by farmers, vets or government officials`; these all contributed to delays in decision making. Even when decisions had been reached, more delay resulted from cumbersome procurement protocols. All these factors contributed to Scotland placing its order far BTV8 vaccine too late for comfort. Surely most of these problems should have been ironed out with competent contingency planning.

There is a risk that vaccination in England may proceed apace, with the Protection Zone in England coming to the border with Scotland before the VFP. Under EC rules that would permit the unhindered movement of livestock from anywhere within the Protection Zones of the EU where bluetongue has been rife and vaccination has scarcely started or is patchy.

These matters must be cause for much anxiety among livestock farmers in Scotland, but none more so than those who farm in the Scottish Borders.



1. Scottish Government (2008). Press Release 27th June 2008 Click Here to View pdf

2. Irvine, James (2007). The first case ever of Bluetongue disease in the UK
See HOMEPAGE, filed 23 Sep 07, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View