Mad Cows and Ferrets, Covid-19 and BSE

The mind is a fast and efficient pattern matching machine; just a pity it is prone to finding faces in the clouds. Perhaps that is why it was difficult to view objectively Covid-19 outbreaks in a slaughterhouse in Waterloo, Iowa and a meat packing plant just outside Munster in Germany. They seemed to offer a clue as to how the virus spreads but, in truth, I connected these two events because, together, they provided a haunting reminder of a now half forgotten epidemic. It is this inability to conduct truly objective scientific research which impedes the battle against Covid-19 although, in this case, most of the faces we see in the clouds have been put there by politicians.



It is almost thirty years since scientists first suspected an outbreak of a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) disease was caused by consumption of contaminated beef. Covid-19 may seem like a Hollywood blockbuster of a pandemic but, at the time, vCJD was perceived as a genuine existential threat. Had there been social media in the 1990s collective panic would have dwarfed the angst which has greeted the arrival of Covid-19. You can protect yourself from a coronavirus by wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing. BSE, on the other hand, silently jumped species and your ten of years binging on burgers were a done deal. The prions responsible for turning your brain to mush came not only with beef but were almost ubiquitous within the human food chain. Prion contaminated animal fat was sprayed on the base of drinks cans to prevent corrosion. When cans were stacked on supermarket shelves the fat was transferred to their lids. So even cola drinking vegetarians were at risk. Despite this, for some of us the darker the cloud the more silver in the lining.

Show Us The Bodies

Companies were quick to spot a market for a simple test to detect early signs of vCJD. However, two years after the initial outbreak the number of confirmed cases levelled off. Scientists with two years of research invested in a promised tsunami of victims suggested a genetic disposition might delay the onset of the debilitating condition. The word ‘timebomb’ began appearing in scientific papers; but even the healthcare editor of the Daily Mail was not convinced. Like the journalist in J G Ballard’s short story ‘Plane Crash’ companies that paid for my research began asking. ‘Where are the bodies?’ Unable to find a scientist with an answer, I decided to examine the data myself.

A decade earlier having started a computer imaging company I hit a brick wall when attempting to write software to decode digital pictures. Eventually I resorted to printing out the matrix of numbers which made up the digitised image of a single letter ‘t’. The 65,536 numbers were highlighted with different colours - fortunately most pixels were either black or white. Clearly visible was how a computer visualised the letter ‘t’. But within the data was noise from the camera and an indication of how computer circuitry translated the image from analogue to digital. This was the world as the computer saw it, not a subjective interpretation by the human brain. The tedious ten-hour exercise turned out time well spent. It enabled me to write software which eventually sold well enough to pay off my mortgage and allow me to do pretty much what I wanted for the rest of my life.

Ferreting Out The Data

It was random noise within data I was looking for when trawling through the case histories of 28 people who had died of vCJD. Obvious was the fact that all these people had contracted the disease after the outbreak of BSE in cattle. One vCJD victim had received contaminated blood during an operation; most of the others ate beef at some point during the previous ten years, but so had most of the population of Britain. Then there were the outliers, random pieces of information that anyone focussing on diet might easily have missed; for example, the above average number of victims who kept ferrets as pets.

Anyone who has owned a ferret, and I have owned six over the years, usually feeds them on dried pet food, which is kept in a bowl inside the ferret’s hutch. When old bedding is removed from the hutch, mixed with dust from the hay are small fragments of dried food, some of it made from beef. Just as vCJD victims who worked on farms and in abattoirs - and there were also several of these - had been exposed to airborne particles of contaminated flesh and cattle food so were ferret owners inhaling, rather than ingesting, prions. This might have accounted for most of the beef eating population of Britain still having brains that were intact. The implications were profound; Britain’s beef industry was being trashed for no good reason. Not my problem, after all there was an army of scientists working on the link between BSE in cattle and vCJD in humans. I mentioned my theory to one of the teams of researchers but then shelved the project for three reasons: one professional, one personal and the other political.

With fewer people contracting vCJD the medical device industry moved on. Not all the research went to waste as some was applicable to tests to spot early signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia; both conditions were on the rise thanks to an ageing population. Also on the increase, ironically thanks in the main to the food industry, were cases of type II diabetes. The race was on to develop a simple device to measure blood sugar levels.

Secondly, I did not eat beef; in fact not much meat at all after the restaurant were ate in Germany took pork off the menu following an outbreak of swine fever. Over the years I had eaten my share of burgers, but these were homemade, and the meat came from the odd Muntjac found dead beside the road. My diet consisted of little processed food – or carbonated drinks from a can. As well, suffering from hay fever, I used a mask when changing my ferret’s bedding. Personally vCJD, did not seem like a significant threat.
One Man’s Meat

Then there was my meeting with the manager of a small PR company. The politest description of Jonathan Bull (not his real name) was ‘fiercely patriotic.’ He was also unswervingly loyal to some of his clients - not, however, the one whose telecommunications software received its European launch in Brussels. I was invited because Jonathan believed his client’s software might have applications in the medical sector. The presentation itself was lacklustre, like something created with Fuzzy Felt. The highlight of the trip was dinner in an upmarket restaurant on Place de Rogier.

The first ominous sign that this dinner was not a straightforward affair was the absence of a menu. The analysts, journalists and the company’s European distributors were all presented with a plate containing a large steak. Not only were we robbed of a choice of meat, but also denied any say in how it was cooked. In front of us was a piece of raw flesh swimming in a pool of blood. I asked if my steak, as it had yet to be cooked, might be exchanged for something lighter; fish or chicken for example. But Jonathan whispered under his breath to stick with it ‘Let’s show Johnny Foreigner there’s nothing wrong with British beef.’ I disagreed, if this was his John Selwyn Gummer moment I would rather have the candy floss. As I got up to leave Jonathan took hold of me by the arm and accused me of letting the side down. Pointing out that BSE was a European healthcare disaster not a game of cricket I left the dinner, which had already taken on the appearance of a vampire convention. From the looks on their faces I guessed the journalists only stayed out of fear of being deleted from Jonathan’s list of good boys who need favours. It is amazing what people will do for a free pay-as-you-go phone and an easyJet flight to Barcelona.

I cursed Jonathan all way to Rue du Progrès, where I remembered, from my time in Brussels attending EU meetings, there was a bar that served the best fish and chips outside of Lancashire. As far as I was concerned he, and his clients in the meat industry, could hang. Returning to the UK I dropped the folder marked vCJD into bottom drawer of a filing cabinet and, until two months ago, never gave the subject another thought.

Guildenstern Is Dead

The Cambridge branch of Patisserie Valerie occupies what was, when I was a teenager, Halfords bicycle shop. This is where I was sat, with cappuccino and croissant, in February of this year, looking out on the now pedestrianised cobbled street along which I once rode a BSA 440CC Shooting Star at 60 miles an hour. This is the sort of reminiscing indulged in by people of my age, mourning the Cambridge we lost when its population ballooned to 150,000 and grumbling about the number of Chinese tourists. It was thanks to these tourists the service in the café was slow and probably why the person on the next table was killing time by continually tossing a coin.

Ironically it is thanks to Cambridge’s spectacular growth many of us have prospered. We are much like drug barons complaining the streets are full of crack addicts. Those who once made their living harvesting carrots and potatoes now charge tourists a pound a minute for punt trip along the river Cam. Once, the best you could expect from life was retiring as branch manager of local bank. Today you expect to be CEO of a billion-pound hi-tech company by the age of forty. Or perhaps, after early retirement, you embark on a second career; heading up one of Cambridge's many international ventures. A case in point was the entrepreneur profiled in the local newspaper I was reading. He was setting up an Anglo-Chinese forum to enhance the already close working relationship between companies in Cambridge and Wuhan.

Wuhan? Why did that name sound familiar. The person on the next table, the man with the coin was struggling to contain his excitement. “Would you believe I’ve tossed this 91 times and each time it came up heads.” He then introduced himself. “By the way, my name is Rosencrantz, I’m waiting for my friend Guildenstern.” He tosses the coin again. “Heads,” He cried out, “This defies the laws of probability.” I agreed with him but, when it came to unlikely events, how about after three months with its tongue down the throat of a Chinese city which had become the epicentre of coronavirus epidemic Cambridge had not so much as coughed.

Having discussed the puzzling absence of Covid-19 in Cambridge with someone else who once researched the vCJD outbreak,I concluded it was highly likely Covid-19 had already reached Cambridge. This time, however, those infected by these new disease remained invisible. Also, unlike vCJD, which I never regarded as a risk to myself, Covid-19 was killing 3% of victims in my age group. So sufficiently incentivised I suggested a trial which, without stretching the limited testing capacity of the UK’s virology laboratories, might well reveal the extent to which the virus had already spread throughout Britain. The data gathered could also be used to improve the outdated influenza transmission model currently being used to estimate how many people in Britain would fall victim to Covid-19.
A Testing Time For All

The proposed trial was pitched to some of Britain’s virologists. I also lobbied both Matt Hancock’s department of health and members of Jeremy Hunt’s Health Select Committee. An outline plan for tests was also described to Neil Ferguson, the person responsible for the influenza model eventually used to persuade the government to put Britain into lockdown. Unfortunately there was the problem of credibility, which even membership of the Imperial College alumni failed to overcome. Maybe it was thought a person who spends all day assigning colours to 65,536 numbers relaxes by shouting at pigeons. Why should anyone, now science has become compartmentalised, take notice of someone regarded as an armchair virologist. Those who believed Britain’s response to Covid-19 would involve multidisciplinary teamwork, a modern-day Bletchley Park, have been disappointed. Perhaps unsurprisingly the proposed trial never went ahead, although I was shocked to discover testing stopped altogether, which was akin to an army disbanding its reconnaissance battalion on the eve of a war.

It seems some in Britain’s scientific community have entered into a Faustian pact with politicians. An unintended consequence of Brexit is science’s increased dependence on government funding. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock claim they are following science but, in reality, science is following government money. And before you think this is merely anti-brexiteering, EU funding is also available only to institutions carrying out research constrained by rigid frameworks compatible with the Commission’s political aspirations. This said, until now Britain’s scientists could choose which master it served. Once Brexit ‘got done’ and Covid-19 saw fees from overseas student fees and investment from China dry up overnight, Britain’s scientific establishments were left with a single paymaster. Now if Dominic Cummings wants science to support the nudge theory, which inched Britain into and then out of lockdown, it is a brave person who argues with the government ministers who decide which university research projects are funded.
Just Swallow It

In 1990 it was discovered BSE could jump the species barrier. In 1994 scientists finally confirmed what many long suspected; the disease could be transmitted to humans. It took another two years before the government admitted there might be a problem with British beef. In the intervening years scientists were pressured to self-censor by a government desperate to protect Britain’s beef industry.

Science and politics make uneasy bedfellows. During the BSE crisis scientists became embroiled in a battle between the food industry and government on one side and the animal rights movement and vegetarians on the other. Likewise, politics influences Covid-19 research with scientists expected to take a position on issues such as the vulnerability of BAME health workers and transmission of the virus in deprived areas. Covid-19 is a biological attack on a species - humans; it will not be repelled if scientists are distracted by politicians seeking a quick fix for long term social problems. As they did during the BSE crisis, politicians are pushing scientists into silos within which objective research, collaboration and lateral thinking become impossible. In the future we may see increasing use of artificial intelligence to provide the objective science needed to fight epidemics. Given the experience of China, a country ahead in respect to automated decision making, there is some way to go become science is totally free from political interference.

Back in May 1990 there must have been at least one scientific adviser who suggested to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that British beef may not be safe for human consumption. Even so John Gummer, to reassure an increasingly sceptical public, fed a burger to his own daughter in front of journalists and TV cameras. Perhaps, next time Boris Johnson, flanked by his advisers claims his government is following science, you should ask to see all the data before you swallow.