LONDON (Reuters) - British authorities investigating an outbreak of highly infectious foot and mouth disease searched two research laboratories on Sunday located just miles from where a herd of cattle was infected.
While there was no confirmation the sites were the source of the infection, both the high-security labs -- one run by the government's Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and the other by pharmaceutical company Merial -- were placed within a 10-km radius (6-mile) exclusion zone as inspectors moved in.
The laboratories, built on one site, handle a variety of strains of foot and mouth, conduct research into the virus and develop vaccines against it and other animal diseases.
Merial is a leading animal health firm with 2006 sales of $2.2 billion. It 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 40 years ago by British biological researchers, it said.
The director of the government-funded IAH issued a statement saying there had been no security breaches at his laboratory, but left open the possibility that the rare strain of foot and mouth may have leaked from the Merial facility, located alongside the government lab at a site called Pirbright.
The government said Merial had produced a batch containing the same rare strain of the foot and mouth virus -- identified by the government as 01 BFS67, a strain isolated by British scientists in 1967 -- as recently as July 2007.
A Merial spokesman said the company had halted vaccine production as a precaution but had no further comment.
Britain's chief veterinarian, Debby Reynolds, ordered an "urgent review into biosecurity arrangements" at both sites, although Defra emphasised that "all potential sources" of the virus were still being investigated.
"The important thing to bear in mind is that this is a promising lead, but we don't know for sure and therefore it is very, very important that people continue to be vigilant," Environment Minister Hilary Benn told BBC television, referring to the possibility the virus leaked from the laboratories.
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.
If it is found that the cattle were infected by a leak from the laboratories it may reassure Britain's farming community, still reeling from a 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 site.
A foot and mouth crisis six years ago 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.
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.
(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London)
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