Government officials believe human error at the private pharmaceutical firm Merial Animal Health is the most likely source for the return of foot and mouth disease, it emerged last night.
As health and safety inspectors began examining the firm's laboratories at Pirbright in Surrey, Whitehall sources suggested the potential biosecurity lapse would amount to a breach of procedures rather than negligence, which could give rise to criminal charges.
Senior officials believe the virus may have been transported by an individual or by a car from the research complex to the farm at the centre of the outbreak, about four miles away. If the virus had been airborne, it is difficult to explain why other herds closer to the site were not first affected, sources told the Guardian.
Merial researches and manufactures animal vaccines, andshares the Pirbright site with the government's Institute for Animal Health (IAH). It has been established that the strain of the highly contagious virus found in the infected cattle was held by both organisations and was used in a vaccine batch manufactured by Merial on July 16.
Both the IAH and Merial insisted yesterday that they had good biosecurity procedures, which had not been breached.
IAH director Martin Shirley said: "In addition to general checks on biosecurity, which have shown no breaches of our procedures, we have been able to check our records specifically for use of this strain. Our results have shown limited use within the lab within the past four weeks."
Merial also insisted that it was innocent of any wrongdoing. "Our centre operates to the very highest international standards, and we insist on stringent adherence to processes and procedures for health, safety and environmental protection, quality control, quality assurance and regulatory compliance," it said.
Last night, the company's managing director, David Biland, said: "We have been operating from this site for 15 years and during that time have produced hundreds of millions of vaccine doses. In all that time we have never had a breach in our biosecurity."
Hopes that the disease would be contained after the initial outbreak were dashed yesterday when a single cow in a second herd was tested positive. The animal is owned by the same farmer, Derrick Pride, whose cattle in the first herd tested positive on Friday.
Defra said around 120 cows had been culled since the discovery of foot and mouth on the farm. This included the 38 cattle known to be infected, and the cattle on two additional sites farmed by Mr Pride. The cattle on the sites, both within the surveillance zone, showed no symptoms of the disease, but results revealed that one of the slaughtered animals was infected. Animals on a farm located next door to the field were also culled. The latest identification, relayed to a meeting of the government's emergency committee Cobra, chaired by Gordon Brown, led to a small extension of the exclusion zone.
Mr Brown insisted the government had acted decisively and clearly to deal with the first outbreak of foot and mouth since 2001. He asked farmers to remain patient during the ban on the movement of cattle, sheep and pigs, which will remain in force for a minimum of 21 days.
The Health and Safety Executive investigation at the site is expected to produce its initial findings on whether Merial was responsible for the leak in the next 48 hours. Last night, Debby Reynolds, the chief veterinary officer, said it was important to wait for the findings of the inquiry before jumping to conclusions.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, raised questions about the funding of the government laboratory, and said that farmers "had every right to be angry if they were suffering as a result of mistakes by others".
It emerged yesterday there have been a number of warnings that laboratories now at the centre of an investigation are in an unsatisfactory condition and could prove a biosecurity threat. According to a 2002 report by the government-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Pirbright complex is in urgent need of investment; it was largely built in the 1940s. "Some of the laboratories and other areas of the Pirbright estate are not close to the standard expected of a modern biomedical facility and are well below that expected of a facility of such importance," it says.
The possibilities of the unwitting escape of a virus were also raised by a former government microbiologist, Harash Narang, who wrote twice to Tony Blair in 2001 expressing concern that Pirbright was using "live" viruses to make vaccines for foot and mouth. He said all future vaccination programmes there should only use the dead form of the virus. "It is easy for a virus to escape," he wrote. Dr Narang, who worked in the government's public health laboratory for 30 years, established the link between BSE disease and its human form, CJD, several years before government scientists admitted the connection.
One scientist cautioned that none of the criticisms in the BBSRC report reflected serious concerns over biosafety. Brian Follett, who conducted the Royal Society's reviews of the government's response to the 2001 outbreak, said it was a "gigantic leap" from the deficiencies identified in the report to the leakage of a virus.
Dr Bernard Vallat, director general of the inter-governmental World Organisation for Animal Health, which advises Britain and 150 countries, yesterday called for a full investigation into Pirbright.
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