LONDON (Reuters) - British authorities hunting the source of an outbreak of infectious foot and mouth disease focused their investigation on Sunday on two research labs located just miles from where a herd of cattle was infected.
While there was no confirmation the research sites were the source of the infection, both high-security labs -- one run by the government's Institute for Animal Health and the other by a pharmaceutical company called Merial -- were sealed off and placed within a 10-km radius exclusion zone.
Both laboratories handle a variety of strains of foot and mouth, conducting research into the virus and developing vaccines against it, as well as against other animal diseases.
Merial, one of the world's leading animal health firms with 2006 sales of $2.2 billion, is jointly owned by U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc and France's Sanofi-Aventis SA.
Attention focused on the labs as the possible source of the infection after Defra, Britain's department for agriculture, said the strain of foot and mouth confirmed in 60 head of cattle on Friday was not one recently found in animals.
In fact, it was a strain of the virus isolated nearly 40 years ago by British biological researchers, it said.
Britain's chief veterinarian, Debby Reynolds, ordered an "urgent review into biosecurity arrangements" at both sites, although Defra also emphasised that "all potential sources" of the virus were still being investigated.
The infected animals, found on a farm in Surrey, southwest of London, were isolated, culled and taken away for burial on Saturday. A nearby herd was also culled as a precaution.
"The foot and mouth strain found in Surrey is not one currently known to be recently found in animals," Defra said in a statement.
"It is most similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and in vaccine production," it said, naming the Institute for Animal Health and Merial Animal Health Ltd, which are based at a site called Pirbright, located about 8 km north of the infected farm.
"The present indications are that this strain is a 01 BFS67-like virus, isolated in the 1967 foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain.
"Immediate action is being taken with an investigation led by the Health and Safety Executive at the Institute for Animal Health and Merial."
If it is found that the cattle were infected by a leak from the Pirbright laboratories, it may reassure Britain's farming community, still reeling from a devastating foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, that the disease can be isolated.
However, it will cause consternation in the scientific community that a highly infectious pathogen, carried on the wind, can escape from a high-security laboratory.
The latest outbreak comes six years after a foot and mouth crisis that devastated British farming, with more than 6 million animals culled and countrywide tourism affected, at a total cost estimated at 8.5 billion pounds ($17 billion).
The previous government, led by Tony Blair, was regarded as slow to react to that crisis and was strongly criticised as a result. This time around, officials responded more rapidly.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown broke off his holiday to return to London and chair emergency meetings of senior ministers.
However, the European Commission said it had banned all live animal exports from Britain, as well as meat and dairy products from the infected area. Further restrictions could be brought in after EU veterinary experts meet on Wednesday.
The United States, which already has restrictions on imports of cattle and sheep from Britain due to other health scares, said it would also ban imports of pork and pork products.
Movement of all pigs, sheep and cattle throughout the country was banned as a further precautionary measure.
Depending on how long the EU and U.S. bans remain in place, the impact on British agriculture could be profound. Industry experts said British exports of livestock and meat were worth about 15 million pounds ($30 million) a week.
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