Wednesday, 20 May 2020

What I learnt from cattle diseases about epidemiology

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.   Everyone is now an instant expert on viruses and I have kept my peace.  

However, I have been reflecting on what I learnt from participating in a Research Councils project (Governance of Livestock Diseases) on cattle diseases.   I had the privilege of working with Graham Medley, now at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an epidemiologist who is often quoted in the media on the pandemic and is involved in giving advice to government.   Any views that follow are, of course, mine alone.

Graham has agreed with me on twitter that there was value in the interdisciplinary approach we followed in the project which involved an epidemiologist, a veterinary specialist, a lawyer, an economist and political scientists.

One lesson I learnt is how difficult it is to eradicate a disease - in medicine smallpox is the only one to disappear entirely.   Civil servants in Britain thought they had eliminated bovine tuberculosis and even had a sherry party to celebrate.  Then it reappeared again in badgers in Gloucestershire.

The handling of bovine TB has in my view (and that of others) been characterised by a series of  policy failures by government about which I have written quite extensively in the literature.  It doesn't bode well for the ability of government to deal with a human pandemic.

That doesn't mean that all policy interventions fail.  The bovine diarrhoea virus may sound like nothing more than a case of cows with the runs, but not only does it affect production, it can also lead to the fatal mucosal disease.

The Scottish Government decided they wanted to eradicate BDV north of the border and consulted extensively.   I attended a very well run meeting in Edinburgh.  The policy has proceeded successfully and I was pleased to read in Farmers Weekly this week that it is entering the next stage of development.

It seems to me that the coronavirus will become endemic and as the WHO states is likely to be with us for four or five years.   Even if a vaccine can be found, I am sceptical about whether it will be available before eighteen months.   Policy needs to take these considerations into account and citizens need to reflect on them as well.

The Governance of Livestock diseases website is here:

No comments: