HL Deb 16 March 1999 vol 598 cc91-3WA
Lord Winston

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to sequence the genome of the bacterium which causes TB in cattle; and if they will make a statement. [HL1469]

Lord Donoughue

We were pleased to announce that MAFF and the Wellcome Trust have recently agreed joint funding for a three-way collaboration between the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the Sanger Centre and the Institut Pasteur in Paris to sequence the complete genome ofMycobacterium bovis. MAFF's contribution will be around £800, 000, payable largely in the current financial year.

This is an exciting and important new development in our fight against the rising tide of TB in cattle. Determining the genetic code for the bacterium which causes cattle TB is undoubtedly the best means of catalysing vaccine research and development. The prospect that by March 2000 we will have a completely defined genome sequence of Mycobacterium bovis, the organism which causes TB in cattle, is very encouraging and represents a major advance.

The time is undoubtedly right for this research to be taken forward. The genome sequence of the human TB strain has already provided valuable leads for vaccine research. Unravelling the secrets of the bovine TB genome is of the highest relevance to the development of an effective cattle vaccine and a diagnostic test which will distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals.

Lord Winston

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What research they intend to conduct into cattle tuberculosis during 1999–2000. [HL1470]

Lord Donoughue

The Krebs review concluded that there is no single solution to the problem of TB in cattle. It made a number of recommendations designed to provide a firm scientific basis for future policy. Many of the recommendations were proposals for further research, and it was these that the Government acted on first. We completely reviewed our TB research programme, and on 20 April last year published a document setting out new research requirements for the year beginning on 1 April 1999. Researchers wishing to participate were invited to submit bids by 3 July. Thirty-six bids were received and were appraised by a panel of internal and external experts from Britain and overseas. A subsequent notice invited bids to analyse TB risk factors. Successful bidders were informed last autumn, and we have since been engaged in negotiations. We hope to sign research contracts shortly.

The new research programme will comprise 19 separate projects and will cost around £3.4 million in 1999–2000, although most of the projects will be carried forward into future years. Many of the projects are integrated into the badger culling trial and epidemiological survey which take forward other recommendations in the Krebs report and will yield extensive information for analysis.

There are three main strands to the new programme.

First, there is work to develop improved control strategies. Although we shall also spend £55k on examining the possibility of using bacteriophages to control Mycobacterium bovis in the environment, the most important work here is on vaccine development. This will be undertaken at the Institute of Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, with a number of sub-contractors, including experts in New Zealand, and will cost £1.4 million. If successful, this will also lead to the development of a better test to diagnose TB in live badgers.

Although improved TB vaccines have eluded researchers for many years, recent advances in molecular biology offer new hopes for success. The genome sequencing project which we are co-funding with the Wellcome Trust is a particular example. This work will be taking place at the frontiers of scientific knowledge. It is important that the various projects contributing to the vaccine programme are taken forward together, and that full account is taken of parallel work in other countries and in human medicine. We have therefore appointed Dr. Jo Colston, the Head of Mycobacterial Research at the National Institute for Medial Research, Mill Hill, as external consultant for this programme.

Secondly, there is work to improve our understanding of herd breakdowns. We are reanalysing the information in our existing databases on TB risk factors. We shall develop new transmission models and examine a wide range of possible transmission and risk factors, including a variety of possible wildlife reservoirs of infection other than badgers. We shall be looking at better ways of detecting Mycobacterium bovis in clinical and environmental samples. We shall be developing molecular fingerprinting techniques to categorise Mycobacterium bovis strains more precisely. This work, which will cost £1.5 million in total, will be undertaken in a variety of research institutions in Great Britain, and will also draw in expertise from Northern Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Third, we need to examine the role of badgers in TB more closely. We shall be spending £475k on work on estimating badger numbers, and understanding the role of badgers in disease transmission.

Details of the projects, contractors and costs have been placed in the Library of the House.

Although this programme is extensive, and will provide answers to many of the questions identified by the Krebs and Bourne Groups, and by people who have written to us, it is not exhaustive. We shall be taking forward a project started in 1998 to use geographical information systems to provide better spatial analyses of TB risk factors, and are currently identifying gaps for new projects which we might be able to finance from next year. We are also consulting external appraisers about a project to be commissioned from the Central Science Laboratory to assess the ecological impact of badger culling.