One of the world's leading experts on mad cow disease tells swissinfo why the Swiss government will continue research into the disease despite its near disappearance.
Adriano Aguzzi, director of the Institute of Neuropathology at Zurich University, says research will now focus on preventing human-to-human transmission of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis).
Aguzzi headed research five years ago which discovered how prions – the infectious agents believed to cause BSE and its human equivalent, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – reach the brain.
The government has decided to discontinue the BSE unit he heads in its present form at the end of the year, due to the near eradication of the disease in the country. The unit was created in 2001 to deal with the healthcare emergency.
However, the Italian scientist says research and monitoring will continue.
swissinfo: How do you view the decision taken by the cabinet to dissolve the "mad cow" unit?
Adriano Aguzzi: I think the decision to scale down the unit is the right one. But I'd like to point out that the research unit will not disappear, it will simply be restructured in order to respond to other needs. We could even say that the "mad cow" unit has become a victim of its own success. In Switzerland, thanks primarily to the Federal Veterinary Office, the goal of wiping out the disease has been reached.
Mad cow disease has virtually disappeared and detailed controls, such as the one conducted up to now, have become less of a priority. However, this does not mean that we can let our guard down completely.
swissinfo: Can we consider the disease to have been eradicated once and for all or are we still threatened?
A:A.: There are some indicators suggesting that mad cow disease can never be overcome completely. Indeed, sporadic cases may still occasionally crop up. What counts is to be sure that the high-risk organs do not enter the human food chain. And this certainty has existed in Switzerland for over ten years.
swissinfo: What balance can be drawn from the work done by this unit?
A.A.: The result is very positive, also in terms of my personal experience as a scientist and researcher. I would actually like to underscore the excellent working environment at all levels. I have no doubt that if we have achieved these results it is due in part to the direct link between science, politics, administration and those called upon to take practical and specific decisions.
In all these years I have enjoyed seeing how it is possible to conduct a dialogue and cooperate at different levels. And, believe me, this is not something one can take for granted.
Thanks to these synergies, important decisions and initiatives were taken in real time. The politicians were able to translate scientific progress into specific measures aimed at wiping out the disease.
swissinfo: What should be the focal point in future?
A.A.: In future, research and preventive activities will focus on the transmission of the disease not so much from cows to people but from one person to another. We must remember that 160 people have died from the disease. This is not a particularly high number although it was of course a tragedy for each person concerned.
Although there were no deaths in Switzerland it would be illusory to think that nobody was infected. Our efforts will now concentrate on preventing these people transmitting the disease to others.
swissinfo: In hindsight, do you think the concern surrounding mad cow disease was exaggerated?
A.A.: No, not at all. On the contrary, I think the level of concern helped to generate the right reaction. Because scientists and political bodies took it so seriously, we were able to take preventive action. And, let me repeat, with great success.
swissinfo: Do you believe that research in Switzerland is sufficiently well developed and able to deal with emergencies such as mad cow disease – and to find a response?
A.A.: In the field of research in life sciences (biology, medicine), Switzerland is certainly one of the forerunners. The number of important discoveries here in relation to the size of the population is in fact higher than in the United States.
However, it would be a serious mistake to rest on our laurels, because our future well-being will be based precisely on the quality of research and scientific and technological progress. In this sense, I am afraid that things may develop in the wrong direction. At the moment, in fact, Switzerland is no longer competitive in terms of investment in research.
If we think of what is currently being done in countries like China, India and Singapore which can count on high-calibre universities that concentrate on developing new technologies, Switzerland runs the risk of standing still – and suffering the consequences.
Obviously, these savings are minor in the immediate future. But believe me, our children and grandchildren will not thank us at all for the decisions we take today.
swissinfo, interview: Françoise Gehring
The first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was reported in Britain in 1986.
In 1990 Switzerland became the third European country after Britain and Ireland to register cases of BSE, which progressively destroys the brain and nervous system.
Switzerland quickly adopted measures to limit the spread of BSE: a complete ban on animal products in feed for livestock; the elimination of the herd where cases of BSE were confirmed, and the incineration of the carcasses of sick animals.
The human form of BSE, new Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was discovered in 1996.
The first case of BSE discovered in Britain in 1986.
Disease appears in Swiss cows for first time in 1990.
Federal Veterinary Office introduces fast BSE test in 1999 to monitor cattle.
In 2001, the office slaps complete ban on meat and bone meal in feed for livestock.