LONDON – British officials were attempting to contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease Monday and avoid a repeat of the mass infections that devastated the rural economy in 2001. And the European Union endorsed Britain's decision to ban meat and dairy exports.
Biosecurity experts were focusing their investigation on a suspected link between the affected and a nearby vaccine laboratory, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said. Investigators were also looking into the possibility that flooding had helped the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown toured an emergency response center Monday, trying to reassure farmers about measures being taken to stem the outbreak.
Veterinary experts matched the strain found last week in cattle on a farm outside Wanborough, 30 miles southwest of London, to the laboratory, which is used to produce vaccine against the disease.
Foot-and-mouth affects cloven-hoofed animals including cows, sheep, pigs and goats, but does not typically affect humans.
Brown, who broke off a vacation to handle the response, held talks at his London office with farming union leaders and pledged swift action during his visit to the emergency response center in Reigate, in southern England.
"No resources will be spared to get to the bottom of this because we know the future of farming depends on it," he said.
Brown said inquiries were continuing to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak, but acknowledged the disease strain found in two infected cattle is the same used at a research laboratory about 4 miles from the scene of the outbreak.
The laboratory is shared by the government's Institute for Animal Health, or IAH, and a private pharmaceutical company, Merial Animal Health — the British arm of Duluth, Georgia-based Merial Ltd.
Merial said it found no evidence of a breach in biosecurity, and the IAH claimed a check of records found "limited use" of the virus in the past four weeks.
"It is still too early in this investigation for anyone to determine the cause of the outbreak," said Merial Animal Health's managing director, David Biland.
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said a report by the health inspectors is expected within 48 hours.
"We have got to make sure this doesn't spread any further," Benn told British Broadcasting Corp. radio, recalling scenes in 2001 when 7 million animals were culled and incinerated on pyres dotted across the landscape, decimating agriculture and rural tourism in Britain.
If the outbreak is found to be linked to one of the two sites, it is likely to mean the infection will be contained to nearby cattle, reducing the risks of a repeat of the mass outbreaks of 2001, officials said.
Last month's flooding is being examined as a possible cause of the outbreak, Britain's Chief Veterinary Debby Reynolds told a news conference.
Reynolds said the strain matched samples taken during Britain's 1967 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The strain had not been seen in animals for a long time, but was used to produce vaccines, she said.
Speaking outside the laboratory, retired clinical virologist Ruth Watkins said there was no doubt about the source of the virus. "The fact is this has come from the laboratory," said Watkins, who was providing analysis for news organizations.
"Whether or not we ever understand how it got out, there's no other way it can be there unless you're going to think it was brought in from another lab outside the United Kingdom or something," she said.
The virus could travel several miles (kilometers) through the air and cattle would be most susceptible because they have the largest lung capacity, she said. However, she said the vaccine should be extremely effective because the cattle were infected with the same strain used to develop it.
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, said following talks with Brown that his members were angry the outbreak may have begun at a research laboratory.
Farmers had worked hard to meet tight controls on the movement of livestock since the 2001 outbreak and would be horrified if scientists had mistakenly released the disease through lax practices, he said.
"We want this stamped out and controlled and life getting back to normal," Kendall said. "The most important thing at this moment is eradication and containment."
Around 120 cows were slaughtered after the virus was identified and confirmed in two animals, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or DEFRA, said.
The European Commission endorsed Britain's ban on the export of livestock, meat and milk. The commission also backed London's decision to halt movement of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs nationwide to prevent the spread of the virus.
To reduce the economic impact, the commission said the ban would exclude animal products produced before July 15, which have been treated to destroy any possible virus or those manufactured using animals reared outside Britain.
Imports of British pigs and pork products have been banned by the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea in response to the outbreak. The United States and Japan already have bans in place on British beef imports.