The livestock farming sector will need to demonstrate there will be sufficient demand for a bluetongue vaccine this year before manufacturers commit themselves to scaling up production.
That is the message from Defra’s chief veterinary officer and the livestock industry, ahead of a summer that could well see the return of the virus to these shores.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) is calling for an ‘open dialogue’ about potential uptake of the vaccine.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) latest risk assessment estimated a 60-80 per cent chance of bluetongue returning by the end of the summer, with a 5-10 chance of incursion this spring.
The most likely source of infection is via infected midges blown into southern England from France where more than 170 outbreaks have been confirmed since the autumn, mainly in the centre of the country.
Defra and APHA have said vaccination levels of 80 per cent, 50 per cent or even 25 per cent in bovine and ovine species by May 1 would have a significant impact on the rate of spread of disease, if it arrived.
But, with no Government contribution, NSA said there was little cost incentive for individual farmers to vaccinate at present, and no vaccine available to do so.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “Low vaccine uptake in the past has made manufacturers understandably nervous about potentially producing a drug that no one will buy.
“The vaccine takes some time to produce so we must be responsible as an industry, think well ahead about the risk to our flocks and herds, and ensure clear communication between us, Government and animal health companies.”
NSA understands all existing stocks of vaccine are owned by the French Government, which is vaccinating to help them contain the bluetongue BTV-8 virus.
NSA, NFU and other livestock bodies are in contact with the relevant companies, who Mr Stocker said would ‘watching this situation very closely’.
“While it is difficult to make predictions, we need a clear steer from our members and other sheep farmers on how we proceed,” he said.
“In the meantime, we have discussed the situation with colleagues in the Sheep Veterinary Society and collectively, while there is absolutely no need to panic, we would encourage all sheep and cattle farmers to be aware of the risk we face, contacting their vet immediately if there is any suspicion regarding their stock.
“Farmers should be extra vigilant given that most stock are likely to be immunologically naïve to the virus, and that experience in France suggests a low level of clinical signs.”
Mr Stocker added: “We are told the risk to both export and internal trade is considered to be low at the current time but this must be closely monitored.
“This dilemma once again raises questions over the costs of industry protection being borne by a few, even though the decision to vaccinate may be based on the individual business.”
Cat McLaughlin, the NFU’s chief animal health and welfare advisor, said France had ‘come under pressure’ with supplies and was restricting use to animals moving out of infected areas.
She said: “We do need to keep pushing on a bluetongue vaccine. As I understand it there is a seed vaccine that will take three or four months to multiply that up to sufficient supply.”
Defra CVO Nigel Gibbens said it was up to farmers to make the case when he spoke at the NFU conference last week.
He said: “The pharmaceutical industry responds to demand and if there was a very clear signal they would respond. They have to adjust their supplies to match and they can do that.
“However, they won’t respond if they think they are going to get their fingers burnt with a stockpile of vaccine nobody is going to buy.
“It is about the strength of the message the industry can give them about the potential of the market, which will make a difference.
“I appreciate the difficult decision, especially give the relatively limited impact BTV has had in France.”