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Schmallenberg Virus

Volume 740: debated on Thursday 1 November 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent the spread of the Schmallenberg virus across the United Kingdom, particularly with regard to the development of a vaccine.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest as I have a farm with sheep.

My Lords, Schmallenberg virus is carried by vectors, including midges, which are difficult to control, but infection outwith pregnancy has minimal impact and is believed to give protection from the effect on offspring in subsequent pregnancies. We understand that several pharmaceutical companies are developing a potential vaccine which will require to be licensed as safe by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. Use of the vaccine will be a decision for the livestock keeper in consultation with his veterinarian.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that two companies have vaccines which are ready to go if they can only obtain approval and licensing? Will he please make this a fast-track incident because this horrible virus has a great impact on farms, especially as regards those ewes and cows which have very deformed offspring?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that the effects of this disease on young calves and lambs are horrifying. We understand that a number of pharmaceutical companies are developing vaccines which we expect to become commercially available for livestock keepers if, in consultation with their vets and considering their management practices, they think they will be of benefit.

I have a spray for use against bad insects which I obtained on request from the Royal Horticultural Society and which presumably farmers are using against midges. When I got it home, I discovered that it said at the bottom of the label, “deadly to bees”. Is it in general use, or in use at all, because we certainly want to protect bees?

I agree with my noble friend. Generally speaking, midges are very widespread across the country and I think that the application of a spray would have minimal impact.

My Lords, in view of the emergence of a worrying number of animal and plant diseases, which may or may not be connected with the nuances of climate change, will the Minister give us an assurance that none of the drastic cuts being made by the Government in their own research facilities will hinder the evolution of vaccines to counter things such as bovine TB, the Schmallenberg virus and Ash dieback?

If I may, I shall restrict my response to the Schmallenberg virus for these purposes. I assure noble Lords that the necessary funding has been made available particularly to carry out the testing which is so critical in this case.

My Lords, it is good news to hear that vaccines are being developed against the Schmallenberg virus although it takes time to authenticate the vaccine, get it licensed and the rest. A short-term approach could be to delay the breeding of cattle and sheep to a time when the insect vector—the biting midge—is less active because it is only through the biting midge transmitting the virus that this infection is transmitted from animal to animal. Has the Minister information about any work that is going on as regards advising farmers to delay animal breeding until there is less midge activity?

Yes, my Lords, I have looked into this suggestion. It is possible that delayed tupping may help. We recommend that farmers discuss this with their vets as there are many interdependencies for each farm relating to the timing of tupping and the overall benefits need to be considered. If a flock is not infected yet, delaying tupping may work only if disease infects the ewes before tupping takes place.

My Lords, will the Minister, who speaks for Defra in this House, give us an assurance that there is a high level of co-operation between Defra, the other departments of agriculture in the devolved Administrations and, of course, the Chief Veterinary Officers on this matter?

Yes, my Lords. That is a topical suggestion, in view of the overnight reporting of the appearance of the virus in Northern Ireland. We are in very regular contact with the devolved Administrations, both through the Chief Veterinary Officer and at official level, exchanging information on our knowledge of the virus and our actions. Indeed, our deputy chief vet spoke yesterday to the Northern Ireland Chief Veterinary Officer about this specific case.

I should declare that I know very little about the Schmallenberg virus, but I know that it is an insurable risk—as is flooding. I want to go back, therefore, to ask the Minister: will the Government take action to address the deficiencies of the Solvency II directive on insurance, which is significantly decreasing insurance capacity in the UK and forcing up premiums for people insuring themselves against the virus or, indeed, against flooding?

I am sure that the noble Lord will have an opportunity to ask a question about insurance. This is not it.

My Lords, given that the midges that carry this virus come from the dreaded mainland of Europe, should not today, of all days, the Government emphasise the need for partnership, co-operation and trust with our European partners? Can the Minister tell us how this country is benefiting from the €3 million that the European Union has provided for research on this virus?

Yes, my Lords. The AHVLA is working closely with similar bodies across Europe and is carrying out joint research funded by national Governments and the European Commission. We are funding research at AHVLA Weybridge into the pathogenesis of SBV and the immune response to it. This will provide valuable information of its implications and impact. We will share this information, when we have it, with our European colleagues.