The British System: cover-ups come easy
British Research

From a Britsh Correspondent
Friday, 12 July 1996

"The article below was found while browsing through the archives. It is typical of UK Government (the author is on the SEAC committee) in that it gives as little information as possible whilst giving the impression that the government is in control and that there is nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, it gives an insight into the direction of UK government funded research. People in the US are not aware that while the UK puts about the image of the mother of democracies and all that, it is rather far from the truth. Although we were more democratic that most countries a long time ago, they have moved on and we have not. Consider the following:

-       We have an unelected head of state
-       We have an unelected second house
-       Our MPs boast that they vote "according to their conscience"
            ie not in accordance with their constituents wishes
-       The party system "whips" MPs into uniformity
-       The cost of standing for Parliament has been raised
            beyond the affordability of individual citizens
-       We do not have a secret ballot for elections (unbelievable isn't
-       We have a formal system for news censorship (the D Notice
-       Key matters are decided in secret by the Privy Council, which    
            answers only to the sovereign. Members are appointed and include
            the leaders of all the political parties. Hence our loss of
            sovereignty to Europe.
-       We have no documented civil rights or free speech entitlements
             such as you have in the US
-       There is no freedom of information act. In law a civil servant
            can be jailed for revealing what brand of tea his minister drinks
The D Notice system is used not just for national security matters, but to suppress "unwelcome" information. The UK Windscale and Russian Chernobyl UK radiation levels were suppressed over here. One of our most senior Conservative elder statesmen described our political system as "an elective dictatorship": we elect them but have no control over them. 70% of the people want to bring back hanging for certain crimes but there is absoluetly no chance of getting it through Parliament.

You have to understand this to appreciate how the BSE crisis developed. In many ways our political system is more akin to the old communist regimes in Eastern Europe than a Western democracy. Apart from the vastly different timescales the UK government reaction to BSE has been the same as the Russian regime to Chernobyl: first deny it exists, when that it not possible play it down, then try and make out it is all under control, and when the truth comes out panic!

I hope this helps people in America put UK news and government actions into context. As you can imagine, the Internet is having a dramatic impact over here."

BSE: is British science to blame?

Jeffrey Almond
Wednesday, July 3, 1996

Over the years British researchers have made seminal contributions to our understanding of the Transmissible Spongiform Encephal-opathies (TSEs), the group of diseases that includes scrapie in sheep, Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD) in humans and BSE in cattle. The persistence of scrapie in our sheep flocks prompted much of the early research on the transmissibility and pathogenesis of this disease. At that time British research in this area led the world.

Research continued through the 1960s and 1970s, and in the early 1980s The Neuropathogenesis Unit (NPU), a dedicated institute for TSE research, was established in Edinburgh. Scientists at the NPU were the first to identify genes that influenced the incubation period of scrapie. They also defined scrapie "strains", the existence of which was doubted for many years by other researchers around the world but which now promise to shed light on the possible BSE/CJD connection.

More recent discoveries at the unit should allow the eventual eradication of scrapie from British flocks through selective breeding. Although the unit was slow off the mark in the era of molecular biology and it was not in the frame during the crucial period in the mid 1980s when the prion gene was first isolated and its role in pathogenesis confirmed, the unit's present research programme as part of the Institute of Animal Health, which it joined in 1986, includes much good quality molecular work.

Unfortunately, the IAH has suffered severe cuts in research funding over the past 10 to 15 years and has lost a considerable number of staff. Its core budget continues to be pruned by around three per cent per annum. The scrapie/TSE programme has been partially protected by short term funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The council's Biology of the Spongiform Encephalopathies Programme (BSEP), which was launched following the "Mad Cow" publicity in 1989/90 and was an attempt to stimulate more basic science research in universities and research institutes, came up with 9 million over the four years to 1994.

BSEP, and to a lesser extent The Wellcome Trust, injected much needed funds into TSE research, some of which has paid off. In particular, the group headed by John Collinge at St Mary's Hospital, London, is ahead of strong American competition and complements the work of the IAH. The group has done excellent research on the genetic determinants of susceptibility to both sporadic and familial CJD. Most crucially, its mouse model for CJD provides a unique system in which to assess whether BSE can infect humans.

The model, based on seminal ground work by Stanley Prusiner from the University of California, relies on mice that have been genetically engineered to carry the gene that encodes the human prion protein. The disease process involves the conversion of the prion protein into a highly stable form called PrPSc. When challenged with CJD the engineered mice convert their human prion protein to the stable form and develop disease in around 200 days.

Normal mice, which have only the mouse prion gene, are poorly susceptible, and if they develop CJD at all, it usually takes over 600 days. The engineered, or "humanised", mice have received much media attention: they are presently incubating BSE but as yet (400 days plus) have not developed disease. If they do develop disease over the next year or so, it would indicate that BSE could convert the human prion protein to the stable, PrPSc form, thereby indicating the potential for BSE to transmit to humans.

In parallel to the basic science, there is a BSE research programme funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Worth around 6 million per year, the programme concentrates on applied topics such as diagnosis, pathogenesis, transmission and epidemiology. It is not unfair to say that the bulk of this work has focused on the industry rather than on the possible link between BSE and CJD. Most of the work has been very necessary and underpins the control measures that have been put in place.

For example, transmissions have been attempted from over 60 different tissues derived from diseased cattle. Only brain, spinal cord and intestine have so far proved positive. Some of the experiments are hugely expensive as compared with those in basic science. For example, a cow-to-calf transmission study has involved housing 630 cattle in relative isolation on four farms for seven years followed by culling and analysis of their brains. This experiment is still running but will be completed by the end of the year.

Other research, under Bob Will, head of the CJD Surveillance Unit, also in Edinburgh, was stepped up in 1990. Will's unit recently identified the new variant form of CJD that precipitated the present crisis.

So has British research on TSEs been slow and poorly innovative? Could more have been done? Answers are probably no, and definitely yes, respectively. There have been some failures. For example, we still do not have a transgenic mouse engineered to contain the cattle prion gene. This would provide a highly sensitive bioassay for detecting low levels of BSE that might be present in some non-SBO (specified bovine offal) tissues.

Also, more effort should have been put into diagnosis, although this is not an easy topic to study. As far as potential cures are concerned, we are nowhere. We have also failed to invest in the social science that might have given information on such topics as where did SBOs go before the ban and how does the eating of beef and beef products vary with social or ethnic group, age, region and so on?

By and large, however, British researchers are doing good work with the resources available. Surprisingly, there have been periods over the past few years when it has been suggested that BSE was getting more than its fair share of the limited science budget. Indeed, in 1993, I had to make a strong case in the face of considerable opposition for the continuation of BSEP beyond its first phase. I was successful, but regrettably the funding for the next three years, to 1997, was reduced. If UK voters are dissatisfied with progress they should consider the broader problem.

As is often the case in science, breakthroughs are as likely to derive from advances in other areas of research as they are from TSE research itself. Sadly, British research has suffered from under investment over the past two decades. The science base struggles to maintain its competitiveness internationally and is less well placed than previously to respond to new challenges.

Training, and the building up of expertise in the TSE area in particular, is a long process and skilled scientists of the sort required cannot be pulled out of a hat. Research could be faster with better funding but we cannot expect answers overnight. A long-term commitment to scientific infrastructure is essential to attract the most able people. Now is not the time to criticise our scientists. It is the time to support them against short-term political decisions. The BSE crisis has plunged the nation into an awful mess. High quality science, rationally applied, is our only sensible way forward.

Jeffrey W Almond is Professor of Microbiology at The University of Reading. He is a member of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathies AdvisoryCommittee and Chairman of the BBSRCs Working Group on the Biology of the Spongiform Encephalopathies.