A bovine TB black-and-whitewash?

| 4th December 2018
Cow
Pixabay
An in-depth analysis of Sir Godfray’s Bovine TB Strategy Review

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The Godfrey Review is an internal Defra review of the department’s own 2014 bovine tuberculosis (bTB) eradication strategy.

It was led by Oxford University’s food and farming guru Prof Charles Godfray and four co-workers. Three of these - Professors Christl Donnelly, Glyn Hewinson and James Wood - have for many years been significant cogs in the mechanism of government bTB veterinary research.  

Michael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June last year (2017)  and expectations of a bTB review arose that autumn. The review was finally commissioned in February 2018, perhaps timed so that it could not influence an accelerated badger culling this year. 

Biological issues

The review was controversial for two reasons. Firstly, it was largely undertaken by familiar faces contractually obliged on the subject via various government income streams. 

Secondly, its wording was initially restrictive, having been specifically instructed not to re-visit the rationale for current interventions. It was to ‘’take a prospective and not a retrospective view’’, and not to be a review of badger culling. 

The main bovine biological issues addressed within the Godfray review can be divided into four main areas: ‘Surveillance and Diagnostics in Cattle’ (chapter 3); ‘The Disease in Cattle: Vaccination and Resistance’ (Chapter 4); ‘Cattle Movements and Risk-based Trading’ (Chapter 5); and ‘The Disease in Wildlife’ (Chapter 6). There is no chapter bringing everything together. 

Despite the constraints, the report is a little more discursive than reviews of the past. More circumspect than John Krebs’ 1997 review, that was accused of trying to use ‘’the rhetoric of authoritative science to […] resolve a chronic policy problem.’’ 

Instead the review weaves between the facts and uncertainties and the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) Independent Specialist Group (ISG) report of 2007. 

Hidden hints 

The review harbours both a range of hidden hints and a stark warning. 

As bTB takes England’s beef and dairy industries by the throat, the failing 2011 government policy and 2014 strategy now meet the austere shadow of Brexit, and the consequent potential for withdrawal of the funding needed to tackle bTB. 

Such matters blow like a cold wind through the 136 page review. It is a stark warning to cattle farmers on the ground and the industries that exploit them.

The message to the farmer is that you are going to have to do better. Anytime soon you may be paying for the cost of this problem via insurance policies and reporting to a new authority. 

Disease in wildlife

One of the major disappointments of the review is that it mis-characterises the wildlife issue as a moral impasse between those who follow the RBCT science and believe badgers must be culled, and those who believe they should not be killed under any circumstances. 

This is a worrying gross simplification and one has to ask how the review teams ‘fifth man’ - sociologist Michael Winter from Exeter - can possibly have come up with such a superficial dichotomy. 

Given that the ISG study group said that badger culling could offer ‘no meaningful contribution’ to bovine TB control, from 2011 most badger cull objectors (over 80 percent of the public and over 95 percent of scientists) just follow the government’s appointed RBCT expert scientists’ recommendation. 

In fact, most informed objectors also recognised that the unstoppable spread of bTB is down to rapid daily cattle movements (for which EU vets constantly ridicule UK) and misuse of the SICCT (tuberculin skin) bTB herd test. 

Once these have been adequately addressed, it is quite likely that bTB levels in deer and badgers etc would reduce without wildlife intervention. 

Suspicious modelling 

There is a peculiarity too in the text’s suggestion that bovine TB epidemiologists all agree that badger culling is necessary, when most wildlife and disease epidemiologists and other scientists are suspicious of the variously modelled ‘evidence’ or its efficacy in applied situations. 

Even a High Court judge in August this year chided Defra and ruled that Supplementary Culling could not be seen as ‘necessary’ as Defra had described it.

Charles Godfray is, in fact, the Oxford scientist whose 2013 published evidence review was effectively the last green light to commencing the current badger culls. His paper, with others, backed up extensive previous work from the Oxford University ‘stables’ who conceived much of the RBCT and its interpretation.

He was following on from Krebs and Anderson before him - who also received establishment honours. As can happen, the available data (costing around fifty million pound) becomes the scientific justification and new truth.

It is very difficult for Oxford to be queried, and even more difficult for it to be wrong. This is despite the concerns that the ‘evidence’ is fraught with problems surrounding uncontrolled randomisation and wider suspicion that some kind of policy-based science is in play.

Godfray unsprung

The 2018 Godfray review does, however, make reference to interesting and important prevailing opinions that flag up why the current situation with badger culling is totally unacceptable. And why dramatic change in the approaches to bTB eradication is coming. 

There is a need to better understand what might look like innocent statements, such as “There is no scientific consensus about whether the disease is self-sustaining in badgers’’, and (if badger is in fact a spillover host as opposed to a maintenance host) that badger culling or vaccination “control measures are helpful but not essential”.

These uncertainties cut helpfully right across the review’s Terms of Reference. Such biological uncertainty alerts savvy stakeholders to the possibility that they have been misled over the importance of badger measures. 

The logical policy development from these statements would be that, until the bovine testing is properly in hand, there is little point in interventions with wild animals. After all, no country in the world has shown that anything other than rigorous cattle-based measures can tackle bovine TB in cattle successfully. 

Badger vaccination

The uncertainty of the role of badgers in bTB may be one reason why the Godfray review gives a subtle yet dispiriting outlook on badger vaccination, softened only by suggesting that further research might help. The current scientific understanding of the ability to detect background levels of bTB in badgers is barely mentioned.

The Dual Path Platform (DPP) blood test to detect bTB in badgers is not all that helpful, as the Test Trap Remove trial project on chronic bTB herds in Wales is showing. False negatives and positives hinder precision in its application. 

Badger vaccination may be good for protecting badgers in areas yet to be infected, or areas that are patchily infected, and may help foster positive relationships between farmer and public, whilst culling brings only division.  

The Godfray message seems to be that badger vaccination may, as with culling, be able to slightly influence bTB prevalence and incidence but may be irrelevant to bTB trends if cattle measures are not working and sufficient.

This may be why the government has given vaccination only token financial support. In its real-world context, the Godfray review discreetly plays down vaccination as a serious tool in the box. It is all the more surprising then that the review retains it as a potential option for research. 

The final message seems to be: try anything you like with wildlife, culling or vaccination; the real problem is in cattle and until that is dealt with, it doesn’t really matter. Which is where the review actually hits the mark.

Mammals and methodologies

It is slightly frustrating however that in focussing on badgers in a review that wasn’t supposed to, Godfray dismisses the role of wildlife other than badgers in bTB, with no critical evaluation of why. He does this on the basis of old research that, with the availability of new technology needs repeating. 

Such research failed to look for non-visible lesions in other common mammals, where recent research suggests bTB may be prevalent. It is not clear whether this is just a remit too far for the committee which lacked a specialist wildlife epidemiologist, or simply because they know cattle measures are the key to halting the epidemic. 

Also interesting are the suggestions of ‘rowing-back’ on Supplementary Culling (keeping culling after a four-year cull) by reinstating the ‘cull and stop’ methodology of the RBCT, which after all is the agreed science reference point. 

This approach from the 2011 culling policy was jettisoned in 2017 by the Chief Vet and Chief Scientist, just because the cull companies (in the consultation process) simply had ‘no appetite’ to cull four years and repeat after a five year gap. 

Defra found a way to justify permanent badger depletion based on some kind of commitment to ‘learn and adapt’ according to outcomes. However, the cull roll-outs are not designed such that the success of any single intervention may be determined. 

Crisis continues

Godfray suggests an experiment to look for differences between culling and vaccination after a two-year post-cull cessation. It is strange to see how this fits with the earlier determinations. As an alternative to government’s scientifically unsubstantiated ‘keep culling badgers until bTB is absent in cattle’ thinking, the ‘cull then stop’ approach might be considered scientifically more logical than recent government policy. 

This is not least because Godfray review (& RBCT/ISG) member Christl Donnelly, with others, found the modelled bTB reduction from culling occurred only once culling had stopped. 

But Godfray’s suggestions do not pay deference to the needs for such an experiment to be surrounded by safe experimental parameters, so he is actually playing the government’s game here raising false hopes at adaptive learning. It all looks a bit wishy washy. 

These suggestions are however, something of a distraction from the main matter in hand – dealing with bTB in cattle. The value of Godfray’s review has been limited by being directed not to comment on the tangled data row surrounding Gloucestershire and Somerset Pilot culls.  

It has been claimed that Gove, Eustice and Coffey have misled both the public and Parliament since the Brunton/APHA reports in September 2017 and recently over the four-year pilot cull figures. 

Data fudge

The avoidance of badger cull scrutiny hides two stories. The first is that (as above) the pilot culls were never set up to show whether badger culling could contribute to the reduction of bTb in cattle. Despite this, the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) have blasted data with “variables” to try to claim a positive outcome, while slapping warnings about reliability at the bottom of their write-ups. 

Unabashed, Defra has been quoting unreliable figures and foolishly feeding Ministers the lines to follow suit. This has been grossly unhelpful (perhaps also unethical and unlawful) and should be heading towards The House of Commons Committee on Standards. 

The only way a positive inference could be drawn from the data would be if pilot culling ‘worked’ in years 5 and 6 in ‘real-time’ as per the RBCT model.  All the signs are that bTB is actually going up or staying the same, and so at best, culling is part of failing measures. 

In not having to deal with that, Godfray does not need to comment on the ‘policy with no stop switch’. The policy’s rationale is that if bTB goes down it is working, and if it goes up, you just need to try harder and for longer. Once you start, you carry on regardless. 

Legal challenge papers in 2018 suggest that, despite Eustice’s mournful Westminster Hall statements repeating ‘’no one wants to cull badgers for any longer than they must’’, the government does plan to kill badgers until bTB disappears in 2038 or beyond. That is its strategy. 

Farmers’ efforts

Crucially, text on page 73 implies that farmers would need to ‘up their game’ to reduce cattle-to-cattle bTB transmission if badger culling were not to be continued. This suggests there is some kind of volume knob on the thoroughness of cattle-based measures.

Read one way, the scientists are suggesting that badger culling represents an attempt to substitute for inadequate test and movement controls that government won’t enforce due to industry pressure.  

While quite probably true (following patterns seen in New Zealand), this speculative comment lobs a brick through Defra and the NFU’s shared front window, telling both government and farm lobbyists that they are not doing enough. 

There’s talk of industry buy-in, and effectively that the solutions are there but not enforceable because the industry wants the public to pay for it. Now we see it. 

But this headline news, like others, is rather buried in the text with the authors presumably thinking that lifting the lid a little bit and putting it back on quickly would send the message without getting them into too much trouble. 

Finally, the research priorities for wildlife seem brief and unexplained, commensurate with low priority. 

Blowing the whistle

In the expertise areas of Profs James Wood and Glyn Hewinson we see a strange omission of the now well-established frighteningly low sensitivity of SICCT in order to clear bTB. The review holds with just one in five tests missing a reactor, when others find it typically two out of five, or even half having false negatives. 

The problem is that accepting the greater SICCT failure undoes the modelling surrounding a vast amount of science, including that which suggests badgers are significantly involved. The old TB scientists wrote about SICCT limitations before taking note, then rapidly all but eradicating bTB in the 1960s. 

This is perhaps the most dishonourable part of the review and it points to scientists and veterinarians close to the root of the bTB problem. This is something that vet Iain McGill has picked up with his ‘calling out of lies’ on government and bTB. Ultimately, with misuse of SICCT, other aspects of bTB policy in the Godfray review pale into insignificance. 

You can talk about risk-based trading and cattle movements, but if your basic test is as fundamentally flawed as modern science and abattoir reporting shows, you are fighting a war that you cannot win. So why did the reviewers not want to blow the whistle? 

Actiphage test  

Enter the new test on the block Actiphage. Around for decades for human use, it is safe and proven technology. You might have thought that a blood test that can spot and ID low density of live mycobacteriumwould be grabbed and championed. 

However, it seems that jealously in government funding circles has bullied the small guy to such an extent that Actiphage has been pushed off and held back for two years, and might yet be for another two or more. 

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) validation of Actiphage may now be delayed until 2020, when its use beyond the highly restrictive Exceptional use protocol is likely to be a decisive game-changer.

A determined Minister and Chief Vet together could fast-track the process, but have they been advised not to by someone? Does Godfray’s group know about this, or about how Defra can block new technology if political beasts don’t want to admit the livestock industry to hospital, where it belongs?

Even when the price of acting now is far less than that of the livestock meltdown of the current policy, with a multibillion price-tag awaiting the taxpayer down the line? Treasury Audit Commission please take note.

Veterinary interests

So Godfray has a diverse group with a range of vested interests, tutting at rules and regulations that are ‘sadly’ in the way of a full dissection of SICCT and Actiphage that could have been laid out in detail.

Godfray’s group even had a day out to vet Dick Sibley’s experimental herd at Gatcombe, Devon, where Actiphage has been in use. Actiphage, ‘the test that farmers want’ is the message that could have been the review headline, but blink and you’ll miss it.

All this is why the review should have been independent of Defra. Then it might have gone to the government legal department, EFRA and others, to clearly show the problems at the heart of government science and administration. 

There is a collective wish also to suppress Actiphage because compensation payments for Actiphage-detected bTB infections are not yet payable. Defra are hiding behind technical upfront costs of introducing Actiphage, but the many multi-million pound price tag that has been put about is probably well under a million, and is chicken-feed to the issue. 

Politically shifting the large (and lucrative, for some vets) SICCT-test regime, running at present at the farmers expense is no-one’s job it seems. If allowed, and the disease was tackled head on (via a government Task Force), beef and dairy would need a protective policy enabling sustainable reform and recovery. The public purse could be relieved and cow herds have a future once the vested interests were tackled.

Vaccination and resistance

As forCattle Vaccination and Resistance’, this is review member Glyn Hewinson and the government’s APHA (Animal Plant and Health Agency) area. Sometimes referred to as the ‘ten-years-away joke’ with funding poured relentlessly into research for many years. 

There is no real appetite to focus on cattle vaccination however, due to the added costs, effect on exports and lack of a ‘divergence (DIVA) test’ to separate infected from inoculated cows. 

Here again, Actiphage is significant as it offers an accurate DIVA test, knocking out the past failed search for DIVA, much to the chagrin of those who have drawn repeated blanks.  

Also, might those in vaccination already know that wrong-thinking on SICCT is where vets and farmers UK and Ireland have fallen down?

A disappointing review?

All in all, despite the surrounding political context, the Godfray review falls short of delivering on the expected applied science component. It alerts people living on a fine margin that they may soon need to work harder. 

We can imagine how insulting this could seem to farmers who have been crushed and abused by misinformation on the validity of the SICCT test by vets and scientists for a lifetime. They needed a guiding light and what they got was a threat.

It is an indictment of the relationship between scientists, vets and government, and an example of policy led science in its darkest hour. The veiled text of the report some might argue, deftly punts the subject back onto political desks, possibly bouncing into the long grass beyond. 

A response to the review ‘next summer’ (Defra needs eight months to react) says it all, when what is needed is emergency action. The Godfray review tiptoes around, offering some insight into the bovine tuberculosis and badger cull crises. 

But it fails to pinpoint key science and to expand on it with sufficient depth when that was its job. It could however prove a turning point if used intelligently.

This Author

Tom Langton is a consulting ecologist to government, business and industry who provides advocacy support to charities and pressure groups seeking justice where environmental damage is being caused to species and habitats.

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