Thursday, February 18, 2016

Gesture politics.

As our country has progressively dismantled the ability to govern itself, periodically the civil servants at DEFRA have to submit a ‘plan’ to the European Union of their intentions and their progress in achieving them, for disease control. Particularly if they need some of our money back, in what is called ‘co-financing’.

Below are snips from their 2015 effort.
Member States seeking a financial contribution from the Union for national programmes for the eradication, control and monitoring of animal diseases and zoonosis listed below, shall submit applications containing at least the information set out in this form.
Co-financing 2015 – 2020.
In December 2015, this somewhat out of date package for the eradication (??) of zoonotic tuberculosis was available for us to digest. As usual, it was high on hope and cattle measures, while doing very little other than a token sporadic cull of the wildlife reservoir, in very specific areas and on a small scale. And any farmers participating, paying for that dubious privilege. A few areas are licensed to indiscriminately jab badgers of indeterminable health - until such vaccines (BCG) were limited by the World Health Organisation which preferred them to be used on human babies.

As this EU submission is 117 pages of fierce cattle measures, combined with some rather spurious predictions, we’ll paste a few tasters of this document and leave our readers to do their own delving of what's in store.The overview is somewhat optimistic, we felt:
5. Overall, these descriptive statistics point to a gradual stabilisation of the main bTB incidence and prevalence indicators in England over the last few years, even though the greater testing effort has resulted in more positive herds being detected (at least until 2012). It is premature to reach any conclusions on the factors at work in these reductions, including the impact of any particular TB surveillance of control measure introduced in recent years. To draw more meaningful conclusions, we need to look at longer term trends and see whether the reductions achieved in 2013 can be sustained in the following years.
Reading from that hymn sheet in 2016 and twittering about 'stabilisation', members of Defra's TB staff obviously have not looked at longer term trends. Or if they have, they are not looking at the same stats - [link] that we are.

In 2013,  9056 herds were under TB restriction (TB2) out of  79,287 registered - if SAM can be believed.
Cattle slaughtered numbered 31,715. Two years later, to November, Defra's figures show that they  had slaughtered 35,650 cattle and their buffer, the Edge area was bubbling nicely. Now we wouldn’t call that ‘stable’ at all. In fact 2015, looks to be heading for the record books as one of, if the worst year on record when the December figures are in. This despite all the tightening of cattle controls and the vaccinating of badgers. Or in the case of the latter, possibly because of it?

The UK has had a raps over the knuckles - [link] before, from our paymasters, and as in section 8.2 of this document, they are asking for an increase above the 50 per cent co-funding arrangement, as ' reimbursement of eligible costs', then those projected costs must be accurate. Or our paymasters will want to know why.

The EU submission mentions badgers a bit, but their numbers in Defra-land have not altered one bit since 1997. Despite two head counts logging substantial increases - [link]
Targeted culling using PCR is mentioned in paragraph 26:
26. We are working to develop practical, sensitive and specific diagnostic tests for badgers as part of the GB research programme administered by Defra on behalf of England and Wales.
This would allow us to better understand the scale of badger infection in terms of geographical area. Such tests could mean that future interventions are targeted at individual badgers or setts, rather than the wider population. They could also help us judge how effective vaccination might be in a specific area. The research that Defra is concentrating on:

• Non-invasive tests to identify infected badgers, including the development of blood sampling devices; and

• Tests to identify setts and areas where infected badgers are resident, such as tests to detect bovine TB bacteria in environmental (soil, latrine) samples, including use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. .
Another pretty underhand attempt at ‘gesture politics’ here: when the Department’s own blinded trial for the most promising ‘non invasive’ screen, passed its main criteria - [link] but is still being misrepresented by 'modeled' false positives and dismissed out of hand.

Interestingly, we note that Warwick University - [link] are in receipt of £930,032, part of a £7m grant, to use this screen or one similar, in the ‘farmyard’ environment. This funded by the  Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which in turn is funded by government. Let's hope no wandering stripey has marked his territory around said farmyard then. It's all m.bovis is it not? Yet we’re told by Defra, that these tests do not work on m.bovis material obtained from badgers?
How very odd when others seem perfectly happy to throw nearly £1m at screening the farmyard environment for the same bacterium.

But we digress: Defra has listed in this document all these futile cattle measures which it has either implemented already, or plans to foist on us, in an attempt to isolate zTB to the W/SW. Thus allowing the so-called Low Risk counties to achieve TB free trading status earlier, while ignoring the march of TB problems in the middle of this sandwich - their Edge area,  Defra also seek to form local discussion groups.
42. There are also a number of stakeholder groups looking at specific issues (e.g. cattle movements and biosecurity) which bring together different agencies and industry. In addition, the engagement of local stakeholders and their willingness to work together is essential and the draft Strategy proposes the establishment of voluntary industry-led local eradication boards particularly in the LRA. A local eradication board has been set up in Cheshire in the Edge Area and it provides a model for local organisations taking charge of their local disease situation and working together to integrate services and respond effectively to the disease situation in the county. The board comprises a wide range of representatives from farming sectors, veterinarians, auctioneers, wildlife groups, local authorities and APHA.
Essential? Que? For what? Fulfilling EU demands so Defra can trouser more funding to kill more cattle?
Such groups could, if Defra had not already made up its collective mind on its protocol of cattle carnage in eradicating zTB, have a part to play. But as this turgid 117 page tome already lists the department’s plans for the next 5 years, they are immaterial. Just another nasty piece of ‘gesture politics’.

153. The Commission Working Document SANCO/10181/2014 Rev 1 (Guidelines for the Union co-funded programmes of eradication, control and surveillance of animal diseases and zoonoses for the years 2015-2017) provides suggested ambitious targets for the reduction of disease levels for the years 2015 and 2017 against the baseline in 2012. Defra, Welsh Government and DARD have developed a series of targets for the period between 2015 and 2020, based on previous epidemiological trends.
As we pointed out, the data in this submission is based on 2012/3, with targets set for 2015 – 2020. So how accurate are these? We touched on the cattle slaughter figures for 2015 earlier in the post.

 In 2015, figures offered to the EU in this document predicted prevalence of disease (that’s herds not cleared by piling up dead cattle every 60 days) was 10.54 percent for England and 8.45 percent for Wales.
The New breakdowns target was 5.24 percent for England and 3.78 per cent for Wales. (total)
And the cattle slaughtered in 2015 was predicted to be 27,441 for England and Wales combined.

The actual figures for 2015 will not be available until March 16th, but the total number of cattle slaughtered to November totaled 35,650 for England and Wales. And that's an increase of 8,209 dead cattle and almost 30 per cent over Defra’s predicted figure offered to the EU. It's also 3,794 head above 2014.
DG SANCO - [link] should be as pleased with that, as they were in 2012 when they commented on Defra's progress as it swopped badger culls for vaccination:
"UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections. The TB eradication programme needs continuity and it must be recognised that success will be slow and perhaps hard to distinguish at first. There is a lot of skill and knowledge among the veterinary authorities and they must be allowed time to use it."
We think DG SANCO will be delighted with this 'progress' and will not miss the point made in para 5, of a ‘gradual stabilisation’ of the TB situation in England and Wales. They may also question the optimistic forecasts that all these cattle measures, the majority of which have been in place for a decade now, are going to achieve their targets in 2020. And for which the Department of Food and Rural Affairs is seeking increased funding.

Gesture politics indeed.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Strategy? what strategy?

In today's Sunday Telegraph - [link] columnist Christopher Booker examines the rationale behind Defra's road block on its own research into a DNA test which will identify infectious badgers.

And a road block of some proportions it certainly is, with spurious misinformation freely offered, despite this test, as we remarked in this posting - [link] passing 4 out of 5 strict criteria (when offered genuine positively infected samples, not 'putative') And it achieved this even when the 'blind' testers used half the optimum samples required, one tenth of the bacteria and a third of background prevalence it needed for the best results.

What was left was 'specificity' (false positives) at group level which was described as 'borderline'..

But the samples were singles, were they not? And the group level specificity was 'calculated' from 1 animal out of 10. We think what Defra's apparatchiks did, was to take a single sample / badger? at say 99 per cent specificity and model it back to a group, thereby creating a heap of falsely accused, but very dead badgers.

But qPCR cannot to be modeled. It is DNA. So a simple answer - Yes or No, but not the milkman.
It is also a group test, not a single animal test.

These are the results chart for  Warwick University's Test B in Defra's 'blinded' trial.

The reason for this rejection and all the hubris surrounding it, is we think, that once zTB is found in an animal - any animal - then under International Statute, responsibility for its eradication commensurate with dealing with a grade 3 zoonotic pathogen, passes to Defra. It cannot be shafted onto farmer funded population reductions. Thus a battle is raging, as Booker explains:
" The truth is, I learn on very good authority, that a battle is raging, with officials still too much under the influence of the animal rights lobby, who are stopping further research needed to perfect the test. If they win, it would be a scandal not only to those thousands of cattle farmers for whom TB has been an appalling tragedy.
This is a tragedy for all the healthy badgers too. Badgerists please take note.

Thinking about this 25 year strategy which Defra are ratting on about, (21 now as the first four years have elapsed - but let that pass) designed apparently to eradicate zTuberculosis from our shores, we have come to the conclusion that it is not a 'strategy' at all.

What this country has is a reactive, annual, farmer funded cull, over very few of the affected areas, repeated in 4 year bites, 25 times plus a shed load of cattle measures. And then what? When areas deemed to have jumped through enough of Natural England's hoops have completed their 4 years, there is nothing at all to put in place afterwards. No 'management' at all.

And the so called, but ever moving 'Edge' area with its expanding number of TB restricted herds and slaughtered sentinel cattle? That mobile buffer between the High Risk area, steeped in cattle measures and infected badgers, and the far North, North East and Eastern counties, for whom zTB is a distant problem. For those farming cattle in the Edge, with an ever increasing, bubbling  infection, there is nothing at all.

 So when we speak of using qPCR to locate infectious badgers, we do not mean as an alternative to an initial population reductions in the areas where badgers are so abundant - [link]  and their infection rates extend to half the population.

We see this technique of DNA matching as a long term tool, to screen and manage infected groups of badgers (and wild boar or deer) over the whole country as and when they occur. Disease driven. And certainly to give the pilot cull areas some sort of safety net after their 4 year stints.

 The alternative is to leave infection to build up to the extent which is seen now in Wales, the West and South West, and then apply for a four year wipe out cull. Which is no strategy at all.