Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Costly Mistake

The last outbreak of foot and mouth disease brought many a British cattleman to ruin. Herds of livestock had to be destroyed, and even tourists had to submit to disinfecting if they happened to be walking about the area affected. That made potential tourists very nervous, and the hospitality industry took a big hit. All because of a disease that devastates cattle.

Once the disease was under control, things returned to normal, and British scientists went back to their labs, to study the foot and mouth vector in hopes of finding a cure. As surely as smallpox was wiped out, the cattle industry wanted foot and mouth to disappear.

Enter Merck & Co., the American drug company. That's their job, to find new drugs and manufacture same. In partnership with Sanofi-Aventis, they went into business and set up a lab in England to develop a vaccine against foot and mouth disease. French-American firm Merial was given the task of running the place.

Within the past week, foot and mouth broke out again in England -- about five miles away from the Merial facilities. Britain's Institute for Animal Health is in the same neighborhood, but they quickly analyzed the infectious agent and discovered that it could not have come from them. It was not the government that was responsible for the current bout, no leaks or security breaches. All eyes turned to Merial.

Merial has halted production of its vaccines, as a precaution they say, but the strain of foot and mouth that has infected a herd of cattle just happens to be the same strain that they use to develop vaccines. According to government sources, Merial was producing that same strain as recently as this past July.

Don't be surprised if, come Monday morning, there's a big sell-off in Merck stock.

No comments: