DOWN ON THE FARM
Private Eye Dec 2002
With more than £30m a year in funding at stake, researching the link between BSE and CJD has long been a lucrative industry for a small group of scientists. The only trouble is that six years after the great BSE scare reached its peak in 1996, they still haven't come up with any proof of a link.
Gone are the heady days when Newsnight could get Professor John Pattison of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) to agree that we could soon be looking at 500,000 deaths from eating BSE-infected beef. Or when the Observer could chill readers’ blood by running apocalyptic forecasts from the great Professor Richard Lacey that by 2015 the French would be slamming the doors of the Channel tunnel as Britons died of CJD in their millions.
And now, with the news that variant-CJD deaths are actually declining - from 28 in 2000 to only 15 this year - the evidence for a link with eating beef becomes more and more tenuous. And so the scientists have had to become ever more ingenious.
For a long time the front-runner in this game was Prof John Collinge of St Mary's, Paddington, who experimented by injecting the brains of genetically modified mice with BSE prions. Regularly a new paper would appear claiming that his mice were looking seriously poorly, the unspoken subtext being that more money was needed to continue his vital research. But earlier this year it seem Collinge was being outplayed at his own game by Prof Roy Anderson. Thanks to the patronage of his friend. Prof Sir John Krebs of the Food Standadsr Agency, Anderson and his Imperial College team were able to come up with a new study on what had long been Collinge's patch, claiming that sheep might well be just as susceptible to mad cow disease as, er, cows. If only more money could be spent on finding that elusive final scrap of evidence need to prove the theory, we might have an excuse to kill all the 40 million sheep in Britain.
Two week ago Collinge hit back. Publicised by the Daily Telegraph’s science editor Dr Roger Highfield, Collinge claimed it may not just be the 119 cases of vCJD since 1994 that should be blamed on eating beef, but also the 588 cases of “sporadic" CJD recorded since 1990. Just why sporadic CJD, discovered in the 1920s, should suddenly be caused by BSE after 1990 but not before, is not entirely clear. But never mind. Such a dramatic 400 percent boost in the number of "BSE deaths" was surely enough, suggested Collinge, to justify a massive new research programme based on screening everyone's tonsils.
This was immediately supported by his American ally, Prof Stan Prusiner, who has developed a new test for CJD which he now suggests should be used on every person in Britain. This might be healthy for Prof Stan's bank account. But the fact remained that even 588 was still short of those hundreds of thousands of deaths confidently predicted by the scientists only six years ago.