Cattle vaccine breakthrough could spell the end of controversial badger culls

PUBLISHED: 13:55 23 July 2020 | UPDATED: 14:19 23 July 2020

Cattle vaccination field trials have been given the go-ahead as part of Defra's strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis (TB). Picture: Matthew Usher.

Cattle vaccination field trials have been given the go-ahead as part of Defra's strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis (TB). Picture: Matthew Usher.


A “ground-breaking” cattle vaccination field trial has been given the go-ahead as part of a strategy to phase out the culling of badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis (TB).

The breakthrough by scientists at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has opened the door for trials which could accelerate deployment of a cattle vaccine for TB by 2025, the government announced.

An effective cattle vaccine could spell the beginning of the end of the controversial policy of intensive badger culling in “high-risk” areas in the west of the country, which farmers have said is necessary to control the disease that leads to the slaughter of 40,000 animals a year and devastates beef and dairy businesses – but which wildlife and animal welfare groups claim is inhumane and ineffective.

As well as plans to phase out intensive badger culling in England, other measures in government’s long-term strategy to tackle bovine TB include improving the cattle testing regime and vaccinating more badgers.

Previously it was not possible to vaccinate cattle as tests for the disease could not differentiate between vaccinated animals and those which had bovine TB. But now a new “Diva” test which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals has been developed, and will be tested alongside the vaccine in field trials.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease which can cause considerable trauma for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly prized animals and valued herds.

“This scientific breakthrough is a major step forwards in our battle to see the disease eradicated from this country.

“As wider preventative measures like cattle vaccines are introduced, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy and start to phase out badger culling, as no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.”

READ MORE: Farms gear up for 2020 harvest after narrowly avoiding catastrophe

UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss added: “The APHA’s ground-breaking research has been pivotal in developing this potential vaccine. Whilst there is no single way to combat this damaging and complex disease, cattle vaccination is a potential new tool for our multi-pronged approach to tackle it and importantly prevent it, providing vital support to our farming communities.”

The field trials have been given the green light by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, and will take place in two phases, with the second dependent on the outcome of the first.

The first will establish the Diva skin test’s specificity – how likely it is to correctly give a negative result for uninfected animals – and its safety in around 300 unvaccinated animals from five TB-free herds in England and Wales.

Phase two will establish the safety of the vaccine and the Diva test in vaccinated cattle and the specificity of the Diva test in around 2,000 cattle, 1,000 of which will be vaccinated and the other half used as a control.

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