Friday, September 16, 2016

Exports: load up, fire, aim.

Yes, we know that sequence is the wrong way round, but in the case of APHA / Defra and anyone in charge of our exports, it is most definitely the way to go. Blindly firing. And putting international trade at risk.

Even though they are well aware that the skin test on some class of animals (alpacas) is about as rubbish as it gets, and even though they also know that a much more accurate - [link] test is available.

 This time, following on from an international incident concerning the export of alpacas to Norway - [link] (with zTB), calves to Holland [link] (with zTB), we have now exported another infected alpaca (or more) to Belgium. Cultures from this animal, exported last year, were described thus:
The TB isolate obtained by the Belgian Government was of a spoligotype whose ‘homerange’ (geographical area in which it is most frequently recovered) in the UK includes the county of origin.
So made in the UK. In fact due to the 'regional accents' - [link]' carried in the DNA of strains of m.bovis, identified down to the county it originated from.

Are we stark, staring mad?

After Brexit - or even before that -[link] - our trading partners owe us no favours whatsoever. And will be looking for any chance to block our exports, without the department responsible for Animal Health offering this type of opportunity on a solid silver platter.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Several papers this week have reported the ongoing problems of badger earthworks in an ancient churchyard. The details do not make for easy reading. But they do show quite clearly just how far these exalted animals have risen. Cult status has been awarded and with the Ancestral home given a grade 1 listing, they have a value way above that of mere mortals, it seems.Even in death.

This desecration was reported by the local newspaper in May 2105 - [link] but obviously nothing was achieved by approaching Natural England to move the culprits on. And then there is the thorny question of where exactly to move them to?

 This week, after a long, hot summer, the problem has re-emerged with a vengeance. The Huffington-Post -[link] reports that skulls, pelvic and leg bones have been unearthed, some belonging to children,  in a heap of excavated soil some 2.5m wide and 1m high.
'If it was rats they would have dealt with it straight away’
was the accompanying strap line.

The Church is the 13th century All Saints Church, Loughborough, Leicestershire.The occupants of this sacred ground would have been from the surrounding area. Their remains now scattered and gnawed.

Friday, September 02, 2016

'Bovine' Tuberculosis - A Political Disease

This week and wonderful film was released, telling the story of one herd of beautiful Longhorn cattle, and their battle with so-called 'bovine' TB.

 Instigated and partly narrated by their owner and breeder, the film tracks over thirty years of joy and success, ending in death for these cattle and heartbreak for their owner.

 It also shows the indomitable spirit of many farmers, who try, and keep trying, against all the guff thrown around, to find a way through to a sensible solution for control of this zoonotic disease.

And finally it shows how many of our universities and civil service, while appearing to help, are actually in the grip of 'group conformity', a phenomenon explained here - [link]
"Within the group scenario, therefore, there is no premium in conveying accurate information. It is far more important not to diverge from a narrative supported by high-prestige persons. Personal prestige depends on conformity with the peer group view. It is conformity, not the truth, which fosters prestige.

Conformity is everything: facts are optional."


With grateful thanks to Mrs. Quinn and the film crew, for this wonderful but sad portrait of livestock farming in parts of Great Britain, today. From Stockyard of the world, to graveyard, in just three decades.
That is the legacy successive governments have left.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

'Marmite' anyone?

Just occasionally - well more than that, if we're honest - we feel we inhabit a different world from some high profile 'naturalists'. For them reality and Beatrix Potter collide, particularly when it comes to badgers.

 Last week, the Telegraph - [link] carried a piece on animal tracking described by Simon King. In extracts from his new book, the general public are encouraged to go out and seek signs of badgery behaviour.
Mr. King informs his readers that:

Badgers leave a characteristic footprint that has a “square” overall shape. On harder ground, they may leave nothing more than a few claw marks but even these, with their even spacing and fairly parallel alignment, are distinctive. In addition to individual prints, badgers create well-worn tracks or paths around their territory.
And then he goes on to tell his readers about this animal's ablutions, and in particular,  its toilet training:
Badgers are almost unique among European wild mammals in their habit of digging pits into which they deposit their dung. Because several animals from a badger clan use the dung pits communally, you frequently find several different textures and colours of fresh dung in the same shallow pit. The animals also have scent glands which they use to mark the ground (and each other).
Now not to put too fine a point on it, these piles of badgery droppings, parked conveniently in their shallow latrines, along with urine and scent marks, have proved useful to many scientists - [link] in tracking a Grade 3 zoonotic pathogen, known as mycobacterium bovis.

This bacterium ( the subject of this blog) is the cause of a lethal, slow burn disease called Tuberculosis.

And being a zoonosis, humans and indeed any mammal can contract it, particularly if they are in the habit of sniffing faeces or other material containing it. Such is the influence of this detritus on the cattle skin test, that cattle farmers are beaten over the head with bio security advice to fence off such latrines, this to prevent cattle coming into contact with them. To approach one and sniff, is all too often the equivalent of a bovine death warrant.

For human beings, handling anything near these latrines requires the wearing of protective clothing, masks and gloves. And testing such material requires that the laboratory concerned has Grade 4 clearance - [link] and bio security extending to years of screening tests, for its workers.

Mr. King however, thinks that this product, excreted by one of the most lethal weapons of cattle destruction on the planet, is rather nice. He explains that the smell of a latrine contents:
".. is easily detected by the human nose and is reminiscent of Marmite. I rather like it, but, like Marmite, it’s not to everyone’s taste."
After that description, if you've still got the stomach for it, there's more here - [link] including a picture of the charming interviewer, Boudicca Fox-Leonard, sniffing a chunk of otter poo.

 This man's advice should come with more than one health warning.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

End of the Summer term.

It seems that around July and August every year, a raft of papers are produced, their authors gad off with buckets and spades, the BBC media very excited,  and Defra line up more cattle for the chop.

This year is no exception, with our old friend Ellen Prook-Bollocks Brooks-Pollock - link gearing up her computer to examine risk factors for TB transmission. A radio broadcast by the BBC last month, quoted her co author Prof. Matt Keeling of Warwick University who explained:
" New research suggests that the spread of TB in cattle can only be controlled if more radical measures are adopted. Culling of entire herds, more testing and cattle vaccination are needed to reverse the spread of the disease. The lead researcher told BBC News that the study also confirms research that shows culling badgers will at best slightly slow down rather than stop the epidemic. The results have been published in the journal Nature. Even if you could cull large numbers of badgers it is predicted to have a relatively small impact on the number of TB cases in cattle."
Prof Keeling's paper was published in Nature, and cited whole herd slaughter, an option rarely undertaken - link in the UK where a wildlife reservoir remains to infect.

 Defra Minister George Eustice, MP commented on the report:
"What this paper proposes would finish off the cattle and dairy industry in this country."
This view was echoed by the department's chief scientific adviser Prof Ian Boyd. He said that whole herd culling "would probably result in a rapid decline in the cattle industry in areas where TB occurs".

Prof Keeling and his co-author, Ellen Brooks-Pollock from Cambridge University, said that Mr Eustice and Prof Boyd had misunderstood the point of the study.
 In a joint statement they said: "Whole herd culling was investigated as one extreme but was never put forward as a viable policy option." 

Err, right. I think we understand that. If all the cattle are dead, there's nothing to test, and thus no TB reactors? Is that about right? Forget the infected badgers, now upspilling a grade 3 zoonotic pathogen into alpacas, sheep, goats, cats, dogs and in some cases, their owners - link

But we think this quote from Professor Keeling, is a classic:
The model was not able to specifically look at the impact of culling badgers, because there is not enough information about their location, infection and movement.

However, the team included an all-encompassing factor to represent infection from environmental effects which includes wildlife.

"Even if you could cull humanely and effectively large numbers of badgers, it is predicted to have a relatively small impact on controlling the number of TB cases in cattle,"
Do you understand that? First Prof Keeling says their model cannot look specifically at the impact of culling badgers, and then promptly and in the same sentence, reaches a negative conclusion for so doing?

Only a scientist with an electronic abacus towing a hefty research grant, could come to such a conclusion.

How much better to look back at the effect - link brutal cattle measures, slaughter and movement restrictions had in the past. Zilch. Just shed loads of cash wasted.
And a heap of dead cattle.

The second paper was published in the Ecologist, but widely reported. It tracked badgers with radio collars, and the conclusion was that they do not kiss cattle.
This is a repeat of 'research' - link done over a decade ago, but still the gravy train rolls on.

An extract from the Telegraph - link to the latest Ecologist paper explains that transmission must therefore be 'environmental'.
Well, yes. As an infected badger can produce up to 300,000 cfu (colony forming units) of m.bovis, the bacteria which may cause zTuberculosis, in just 1ml of infected urine, that is no doubt 'possible'. (That's scientific speke for - it happens)

Add to that their charming habit of scent marking territory, including our cattle feed and grazing ground, as well as general incontinence, dribbling up to 30ml of the stuff around our farms, and yes, we have a problem. And that's from only one end. Sputum from lung lesions and pus from suppurating bite wound abscesses add to that 'environmental' burden. As does the fright / flight spitting and spraying this animal indulges in - when not anesthetized to be fitted with a GPS collar..

And other research on record - much more useful in this case, confirms that just 1cfu is enough to infect a calf, and 70 cfu an adult bovine. More on that in this post - link

But there is now more on that 'environmental' burden involving the the lowly earthworm - link
A group of scientists, plastered Lumbricus terrestris (that's a fancy name for an earthworm) with cattle faeces spiked with the M. bovis BCG strain Pasteur to carry out two separate experiments. They explain;
 The dissemination, the gut carriage and the excretion of M. bovis were all monitored using a specific qPCR-based assay. 
Leaving aside the screening was using qPCR, which Defra insist will not work to identify m.bovis, the bacterium was found to be  carried through into soil for up to four days.

Now, here's thought. TB bacteria is rarely, if ever, found in cattle faeces. Any lesions are usually safely walled up in lymph nodes. But that paragraph and link in our post above details the amount of the euphemistically named 'environmental' burden heaped into grassland by infected badger detritus.

 And what are badgers preferred food? Our old friend, Lumbricus terrestris.
Or earthworms to you and me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wales - FUW reports a 37 per cent increase in TB in one year.

The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) have issued a press release, urging the new Welsh Government to work with the farming industry to address the issue of TB in wildlife.

 Speaking during the FUW’s Annual General Meeting, FUW President Glyn Roberts told members that an average of 36 cattle were culled every working day due to TB, representing an increase of 37 percent on the previous 12 month period, and an eight hundred percent rise since 1996.
“The pattern in the north Pembrokeshire Intensive Action Area, where millions have been spent on vaccinating badgers over the past four years, is no different”,Glyn Roberts told those present, referring to the latest scientific report into the impact of badger vaccination in the area, which found there was no improvement in TB rates in the area despite more than £3.7 million having been spent on vaccinating 5,192 badgers in the area since 2011.

We therefore look to this new government to finally grasp the nettle, and accept the basic facts which our Chief Vet has made clear to successive governments,” he said.
Glyn Roberts also highlighted the experience of other countries where cattle TB controls, which are less stringent than those applied in Wales, quickly eradicate the disease and restore TB-free status, citing the example of Germany. The badger population here is proactively managed, and numbers are reduced by around 65,000 a year.
“Their badger population [in Germany] is not endangered by any stretch of the imagination - and nor is it infected with TB.”
Glyn Roberts said such patterns are repeated around the world, and that scientific evidence gathered from across the EU and the globe showed that TB cannot be eradicated while the epidemic in wildlife is ignored.
“This truth, and the distressing figures in terms of the numbers of cattle being culled every day, is something we will be highlighting over the coming months, and we hope Welsh Government and those from across the political spectrum will work with us in helping educate the public about the severity of the situation, just as we have done in the past,” he added.

Pictured: (L-R) Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales Professor Christianne Glossop, FUW Deputy President Brian Thomas, Environment and Rural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Lesley Griffiths and FUW President Glyn Roberts

Saturday, June 04, 2016

A (nother) new test for TB

Making the headlines this week, is another new screening test - [link] for zTB. This is a blood test, with results available in 6 hours, and aims to find TB bacteria circulating in blood, ahead of any lesions forming.

The test has been developed by a team at The University of Nottingham led by Dr Cath Rees, an expert in microbiology in the School of Biosciences and Dr Ben Swift from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.

The researchers have used this new method to show that cattle diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis (bTB) have detectable levels of the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) - which causes this bTB - in their blood. The research: ‘Evidence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex bacteraemia in intradermal skin test positive cattle detected using phage-RPA' has been published online in the peer reviewed medical journal Virulence = [link]

The full paper is behind a paywall. More information is available from the authors.

 In her introduction Dr Rees explains: “This test delivers results within 48 hours and the frequency in which viable mycobacteria were detected in the blood of skin test positive animals, changes the paradigm of this disease."
This new, simple and inexpensive blood test detects very low levels of mycobacteria in blood using a bacteriophage-based technique developed by The University of Nottingham. The group has patented an improved version of the method that delivers results in just six hours. More recently ‘proof of principal’ experiments have shown that this is even more sensitive. This is currently licenced to a spin out company, PBD Biotech Ltd.
This test uses amplified DNA, and is explained by the authors thus:
Bacteriophage amplification technology was developed 20 years ago as a method to rapidly detect and enumerate slow growing pathogenic mycobacteria. In addition it can be used as a tool to rapidly detect antibiotic resistance and to investigate mycobacterial dormancy. The assay detects the growth of broad host range mycobacteriophage, capable of infecting a wide range of both pathogenic and non-pathogenic mycobacteria.
Any diagnostic test with a decent pedigree, is welcome, and having heard the guff circulating about the sensitivity of the internationally used skin test, many will latch on to these discoveries like the Holy Grail.
But tests such as this for cattle, would still be supplementary to the primary skin test. Just like Gamma ifn - [link] and Enferplex - [link] and even qPCR - [link]

But only a scientist on a mission could come up with the following two statements - and keep a straight face:
"Routine testing for Bovine TB uses the Single Intradermal Comparative Cervical Tuberculin (SICCT) skin test for M. bovis infection and all healthy cattle are regularly tested this way. However, it is known that this test is only 90 per cent sensitive at best and misses many infected animals."
and then in describing the test results:
"The data we are getting has taken the scientific community by surprise. In our paper we show that when blood samples from (45) skin test negative cattle were tested for M. bovis cells, all the samples proved negative."

Dr Rees then explains that the test showed:
"viable Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex bacteria (MTC) were detected in 66 per cent of samples (27/41) from skin test positive animals."
So this test agreed 100 per cent with the 45 skin test negative animals and 'found' 66 per cent of the skin test positives? We're trying to get our collective heads around that one, but suggest the remaining skin test positives would be NVL at post mortem. That is, both the skin test and this blood screen, had, in some cattle, picked up mycobacterium bovis circulating ahead of lesions. Dr. Rees explains:
“More excitingly, using our new more sensitive six-hour method, this figure is even higher - all animals with visible lesions were MTC positive, and even 26 out of 28 animals where the lesions were not yet visible also were positive suggesting that M. bovis is commonly found in the circulating blood of infected animals. Using our bacteriophage-based test the hope is that we can help improve herd control by finding animals at the early stages of infection and helping farmers control outbreaks of bTB more rapidly. ”
The Nottingham team are working with the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, National Animal Disease Center, to set up the first animal trial using the blood test to detect M. bovis in the blood of experimentally infected animals to determine exactly how soon this test can detect infection.

Dr Rees said: “The test also offers the potential for new, better tests for other farm animals. We are directly detecting the bacteria and so the method will work using blood samples from any animal species – so far we have detected mycobacteria in the blood of cattle, sheep and horses, but it could also be used for deer, goats or llamas. Not only that, we can detect any type of mycobacteria, we have use the same method to detect other diseases, such as Johne’s disease, not just bTB.”

Why only this suggested use on 'farm animals'? What about infected Badgers? Don't mention the 'B' word.

It could be useful. Just like non invasive qPCR on badger latrines and sputum could be useful. But it won't be used, as the responsibility for eradication of this Grade 3 zoonotic pathogen then becomes Defra's, not that of a farmer with a cage or a rifle trying to jump through Natural England's increasingly  convoluted hoops.

Finding cattle exposed to mycobacterium bovis, presently screened by the Intradermal skin test, and confirmed by this method is fine. As long as continuing  upspill from wildlife is then excluded. Otherwise, as now, we will shoot the messenger in ever increasing numbers, while gaining nothing at all.

Our take is that this test correlated very snugly with the results of the skin test, on the cattle which were examined.  

The paper is available to purchase on this link - [link]
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