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Agriculture: Schmallenberg Virus

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to counter the spread of Schmallenberg virus in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, 121 farms in England are affected by the Schmallenberg virus. They indicate the extent of a late summer 2011 infection. All of them are within the at-risk regions for midge incursion during 2011 from continental Europe. We understand the anxiety of farmers as they get into the lambing season. We will continue to monitor and test for disease across the UK to determine the spread of disease during that time. Meanwhile we are working closely with our European neighbours to find out more about the disease.

My Lords, while recognising that farmers, vets and Defra are working very closely, are research establishments across the UK fully engaged in finding a remedy? Are all research programmes in the many European countries affected being co-ordinated with our own in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, good collaborative networks operate in Europe with our European colleagues. We are working with them and the Commission to develop an investigatory research programme to answer questions as to the disease’s origin, transmission and future prognosis. We have strength in depth in vector research at Pirbright and virus characteristics at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency at Weybridge, which will play a key role in this.

My Lords, sorry, am I competing with somebody else? Forgive my ignorance but I do not know how this virus gets around. Is it through biting the animals, laying eggs or what? Families are involved in the birth of lambs. Are they—particularly the young women of the families—at risk of catching this terrible bug?

No, I can reassure my noble friend that the family of viruses from which this infection comes poses no direct threat to human health. As for how the infection occurs, it is midge-transmitted: the midge infects the sheep or cattle. We know now that that occurred in the summer or early autumn of last year. Indeed, we know that the last possible date on which it might have occurred was 13 November. We know that from the weather prediction and patterns that we have studied to find out more about how this infection arrived in the country.

My Lords, I know when to be gallant. In view of the Minister’s assurance that there does not appear to be any risk to human health, and in view of experiences over recent decades, will he ask the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency to monitor the disease particularly closely?

I can assure the noble Lord that we have already done that. We have had risk assessments by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the UK Health Protection Agency, both concluding that there is a very low likelihood of any risk from this disease to human health.

I declare an interest as I have three flocks of sheep and we are coming up to lambing. What progress is being made on a serological blood test?

That is exactly what is being investigated at the moment. We do not have a blood test at present, but it is clearly going to be very important. This is a very new virus, and we know relatively little about it except the background from which it comes. We have very strong indications as to how it has come here. The work is ongoing, but I assure the noble Baroness that we are working hard to get a blood test.

My Lords, the spread of this virus is clearly of concern to farmers in this country, and I welcome the update that we have had from the Minister. Does he agree that the department’s risk assessment on climate change suggests that this sort of disease, borne by midges, will become more common, and that how it is handled now will set a pattern for the future? On the basis of openness and transparency, will he agree a simple request that the Chief Veterinary Officer urgently provides a briefing to interested Peers so that the House can be updated regularly?

I am most happy to do so. I welcomed this Question because I was aware that this matter must be of concern to a number of Peers. This is an opportunity to inform the House on the subject, and I give the assurance that a “Dear colleague” letter goes to all interested Peers on this matter.

I declare an interest as president of the National Sheep Association. Will all the reported cases be required to have laboratory confirmation of the disease? Are the laboratories able to cope with that, and does the Government’s scenario predict a seasonal peak in the next few months?

I have already indicated to the House that there is a season for the initial infection and therefore the consequent impact on young lambs and calves. There will be a seasonal pattern. I agree that we may have to deal with similar infections in future, so it is important to have proper precautions in place.