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EU adopts Swiss BSE test

The European Union has decided to adopt a Swiss test as one of the three it will use in its fight against mad cow disease. The test was developed by the University of Zurich's spin-off company Prionics.

The European Union has decided to adopt a Swiss test as one of the three it will use in its fight against the cattle disease, BSE. The test, developed by the University of Zurich's spin-off company Prionics, uses prion protein analysis to detect the disease in dead animals.

Switzerland has been using the test since 1999 as its standard means to check for BSE in randomly sampled cattle, including cows which did not die after displaying BSE-like symptoms. However, the EU is not planning to adopt as rigorous an approach as Switzerland.

Of the 41 million cattle in the EU aged over 2 years, one per cent is estimated to be at risk from BSE. Of this group of around 400,000, one sixth of the animals will be surveyed in what are termed "rapid post-mortem tests". The cows surveyed will be ones which have shown BSE-like symptoms.

Heinz Müller, of Switzerland's Federal Veterinary Office, says this is one of the major differences between the way this country applies the test, and the way the EU plans to do so. The Swiss veterinary services test not only sick cattle, but also a random selection of dead animals.

Markus Moser, of Prionics, is part of the team which developed the Swiss test. He agrees with Müller that there is a key difference between EU procedures - which put the onus on farmers to report cattle with BSE-like symptoms - and the Swiss approach, in which the veterinary authorities are proactive in their battle against the disease.

Moser says there is an inherent risk in not taking a random sample from a herd. The danger is that farmers will not report sick cows which may start to display severe symptoms, but will send the animals to slaughter even if there is even a slight suspicion of illness. This means that BSE-infected cattle may still enter the food chain. ·

Scientists are yet to prove a direct link between BSE and its human version, new variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease. But both are believed to belong to the same group of fatal brain diseases called "Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies", or prion diseases. Moser says new prion-related research is essential.

Prionics' work is now focusing on refining the BSE tests, and on developing new tests which would identify the human equivalents of BSE. Moser believes that while there is still much to learn about mad cow diease and its variants, the research - which has so far been carried out only in Switzerland - represents a major step towards cracking the code of what causes it.

By Jonathan Fowler


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