Badger vaccine forecast to be used again next year

Badger culling remains a controversial method of tackling the spread of tuberculosis.
Badger culling remains a controversial method of tackling the spread of tuberculosis.
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Amid the anxious noise of Brexit and just what it will all eventually mean for the nation’s farmers, there remain other acute challenges that beset the industry’s future.

In no small way, the spread of disease to farm animals threatens to derail countryside livelihoods and potentially even undermine confidence in exports.

Farming Minister George Eustice.  Picture by Tony Johnson.

Farming Minister George Eustice. Picture by Tony Johnson.

The avian flu crisis is the most recent example of how the industry has been put on the back foot, forcing poultry keepers to house birds as precautionary measures that posed a threat to their free range statuses.

And while it has been some time since Queen guitarist-come-badger campaigner Brian May has been photographed in Parliament Square waving anti-culling placards, the battle to defeat tuberculosis from spreading to wildlife is one that still rages - and so too is the opposition to the controversial badger culls designed to help the Government meet that ambition.

In the last year alone, about 29,000 cattle were slaughtered as a result of the disease, and the costs are mount, with the Government spending more than £100m a year on tacking bovine TB.

The badger culling policy was once again the cause for lively, and at times, stormy debate in Parliament earlier this week, where MPs urged the Farming Minister, George Eustice, to redouble government efforts to develop an oral vaccine to control TB in badgers.

Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown derided the fact that a vaccine had been “just around the corner” ever since he became an MP in 1992.

Meanwhile, Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith called for a thorough, independent assessment of pilot badger culls.

A Government report published towards the end of last year stated that the results of the most recent badger culls in two areas each in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Gloucestershire, and one area each in Somerset and Herefordshire, indicated that all badger control companies “delivered the level of badger removal required to be confident of disease control benefits and that the operations were carried out to a high standard of public safety”.

Mercifully, Yorkshire remains a low-risk area for cattle contracting the disease, and it was a cause of great relief when Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced in December that the Government would be applying for the low-risk areas of the country to be declared Officially TB-Free by the European Commission - two years ahead of schedule.

But with high risk areas of the country in the South of England still facing a challenge to control the disease, Mr Eustice was forced into a staunch defence of the Government’s current 25-year eradication strategy during this week’s debate.

Mr Eustice said there are no easy solutions and no single measure that will wipe TB out, as he blamed previous Labour “dithering” when more assertive action could have made the disease easier to tackle.

The debate was triggered after an e-petition calling for the culling of badgers to be abandoned collected more than 100,000 signatures.

The petition asserts: “Experts in disease control and animal welfare agree that pilot badger culls have proven both ineffective and inhumane. Shooting badgers is also expensive, costing tax-payers some £5,000 per animal.

“Bovine TB is a serious problem but killing badgers is not the solution, and could actually make the situation worse. It is a costly distraction from an effective solution incorporating vaccination, increased cattle movement control measures and improved testing.”

During the subsequent debate, Mr Clifton-Brown MP backed the call for an effective vaccination.

He said: “The only real way to control TB in badgers is for scientists to invent an oral vaccine that could be incorporated into a bait to be fed to badgers. That method was successful in eradicating rabies in foxes on the continent.

“An oral vaccine for badgers has been “just around the corner” ever since I became a Member of Parliament in 1992. I urge the Minister today to redouble the Government’s efforts to find such a vaccine, because that would be the ultimate solution to this unpleasant problem.”

Mr Eustice said: “No vaccine is fully effective. The best we have is the BCG vaccine, which we know is only about 70 per cent effective.”

Criticising the former Labour administration for deciding against badger culls, the Minister added: “The reality is that we had 15 years that can be best described as a period of dither, when clear action was not taken on all the available fronts to tackle the disease.”

Pressed further on the use of vaccines, Mr Eustice explained how next year may bring a resumption of badger vaccination as part of a trial in the so-called ‘edge’ area - parts of the country that adjoin the high-risk areas.

The Minister said: “We believe that vaccination of badgers could give us an exit strategy from the cull once we have reduced numbers. That is why we continue to spend millions of pounds trying to develop an oral vaccine for badgers, and that work is ongoing.”

He continued: “In 2015, we had an edge area vaccination pilot, where six voluntary groups came together to support us in rolling out the trapping and vaccination of badgers in the edge area. As a result of the shortage of vaccine and a request from the World Health Organisation that the vaccine we had be reserved for medical use in humans only, we had to suspend that programme, in common with Wales.

“We hope to secure new supplies of vaccine and to resume that edge area vaccination project in 2018.”

But he remained adamant that vaccination was only one of tool for bearing down on the disease, saying: “I am afraid, however, that a badger cull is an essential part of any coherent strategy to eradicate TB.”