Go-ahead for cattle TB vaccine trials as strategy shifts from badger culls

Field trials of a cattle vaccine for bovine tuberculosis (TB) have been given the go-ahead as part of moves to phase out badger culling to tackle the disease.

The trials are set to get under way in England and Wales to accelerate deployment of a cattle vaccine for TB by 2025, the Government announced.

It is part of a shift in strategy to phase out intensive culling of badgers, a protected species which can transmit the disease to livestock, and has been made possible by a breakthrough by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

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 an effective “Diva” test which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals has been developed, and will be tested alongside the BCG vaccine in field trials.

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.

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.”

UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said: “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.”

Other measures in the new strategy to tackle bovine TB, which leads to the slaughter of 40,000 animals a year, include improving the cattle testing regime and vaccinating more badgers.

A cattle vaccine could spell the beginning of the end of the controversial policy of intensive badger culling, which farmers have said is necessary to control the disease that devastates the beef and dairy industries.

Despite opposition from wildlife and animal welfare groups, which said culling is inhumane and ineffective, the cull has been rolled out to 40 areas of England.

Professor Lord John Krebs, who wrote a key report on badgers and TB in 1997, said that if the vaccine and Diva test are effective it “will be a major breakthrough for TB control”.

“A vaccine would end the need for badger culling,” he said.