December 26, 2003

Expert Warned That Mad Cow Was Imminent

Perhaps the NYTwits will do a better job with this story than they did with the theft of Fraudida, the 9/11 cover-up or the lies that led to war in Iraq...

New York Times: The department had been willfully blind to the threat, he said. The only reason mad cow disease had not been found here, he said, is that the department's animal inspection agency was testing too few animals. Once more cows are tested, he added, "we'll be able to understand the magnitude of our problem."

Protect Public Health, Show Up for Democracy in 2004: Defeat Bush (again!)


http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/25/national/25WARN.html?hp

Expert Warned That Mad Cow Was Imminent
By SANDRA BLAKESLEE

Published: December 25, 2003


Ever since he identified the bizarre brain-destroying proteins that cause mad cow disease, Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has worried about whether the meat supply in America is safe.

He spoke over the years of the need to increase testing and safety measures. Then in May, a case of mad cow disease appeared in Canada, and he quickly sought a meeting with Ann M. Veneman, the secretary of agriculture. He was rebuffed, he said in an interview yesterday, until he ran into Karl Rove, senior adviser to President Bush.

So six weeks ago, Dr. Prusiner, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on prions, entered Ms. Veneman's office with a message. "I went to tell her that what happened in Canada was going to happen in the United States," Dr. Prusiner said. "I told her it was just a matter of time."

The department had been willfully blind to the threat, he said. The only reason mad cow disease had not been found here, he said, is that the department's animal inspection agency was testing too few animals. Once more cows are tested, he added, "we'll be able to understand the magnitude of our problem."

This nation should immediately start testing every cow that shows signs of illness and eventually every single cow upon slaughter, he said he told Ms. Veneman. Japan has such a program and is finding the disease in young asymptomatic animals.

Fast, accurate and inexpensive tests are available, Dr. Prusiner said, including one that he has patented through his university.

Ms. Veneman's response (he said she did not share his sense of urgency) left him frustrated. That frustration soared this week after a cow in Washington State was tentatively found to have the disease. If the nation had increased testing and inspections, meat from that cow might never have entered the food chain, he said.

Ms. Veneman was not available for interviews yesterday, and the White House referred all questions to the department. A spokeswoman for Ms. Veneman, Julie Quick, said: "We have met with many experts in this area, including Dr. Prusiner. We welcome as much scientific input and insight as we can get on this very important issue. We want to make sure that our actions are based on the best available science."

In Dr. Prusiner's view, Ms. Veneman is getting poor scientific advice. "U.S.D.A. scientists and veterinarians, who grew up learning about viruses, have difficulty comprehending the novel concepts of prion biology," he said. "They treat the disease as if it were an infection that you can contain by quarantining animals on farms. It's as though my work of the last 20 years did not exist."

Scientists have long been fascinated by a group of diseases, called spongiform encephalopathies, that eat away at the brain, causing madness and death. The leading theory was that they were caused by a slow-acting virus. But in 1988, Dr. Prusiner proposed a theory that seemed heretical at the time: the infectious agent was simply a type of protein, which he called prions.

Prions (pronounced PREE-ons), he and others went on to establish, are proteins that as a matter of course can misfold that is, fold themselves into alternative shapes that have lethal properties and cause a runaway reaction in nervous tissue. As more misfolded proteins accumulate, they kill nerve cells.

Animals that eat infected tissues can contract the disease, setting off an epidemic as animals eat each other via rendered meats. But misfolded proteins can also arise spontaneously in cattle and other animals, Dr. Prusiner said. It is not known whether meat from animals with that form of the disease could pass the disease to humans, he said, but it is a risk that greatly worries him.

Cattle with sporadic disease are probably entering the food chain in the United States in small numbers, Dr. Prusiner and other experts say.

Brain tissue from the newly discovered dairy cow in Washington is now being tested in Britain to see if it matches prion strains that caused the mad cow epidemic there, or if it is a homegrown American sporadic strain, Dr. Prusiner said.

"The problem is we just don't know the size of the problem," he said. "We don't know the prevalence or incidence of the disease."


Posted by richard at December 26, 2003 10:53 AM