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The Mad Cow Disease crisis - how Europe’s health research came of age

During the crisis and its aftermath over 200 people died from CJD, while 4.4 million cattle were slaughtered in the UK as part of the eradication programme. © Fotolia
During the crisis and its aftermath over 200 people died from CJD, while 4.4 million cattle were slaughtered in the UK as part of the eradication programme. © Fotolia

When a mystery brain disease jumped from cows to humans in 1996, a concerted effort by EU researchers helped to unravel its causes, and change food production for good.

The outbreak was uncharted territory– a unique challenge requiring an unprecedented rapid response. There was no cure to Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), no vaccine, and nobody could say with confidence whether there was a risk of a major human outbreak.

Even though the Framework Programmes were seen primarily as a way to strengthen the competitiveness of European industry when they were launched in 1984, health research, along with environment, had been integral from the beginning and became increasingly important as they progressed. In addition, since its inception, EU research policy has addressed issues which are key to society, such as energy and transport. However, the BSE crisis required something more – a vast effort of real-time coordinated research across Member States.

The alarm was first raised by a collaboration of experts from several countries – supported by the European Commission – who had been conducting enhanced surveillance for the human form of BSE, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), since 1993. In early 1996 they announced a new variant of CJD, and by November that year the European Commission had put forward EUR 50 million to fund research on the disease under the Fourth Framework Programme. In total, around EUR 100 million of European research funds were invested to find answers to this potentially devastating disease between 1996 and 2008.

‘Very firm scientific relationships have been established that have lasted a very long time and continue to be productive in terms of publications and advancing scientific knowledge.’

Professor Bob Will, Professor of Clinical Neurology, University of Edinburgh

Scientists mobilised

As the crisis unfolded, scientists across Europe mobilised to deepen their understanding of the disease so they could improve diagnosis and contain the outbreak. National governments shared information and adapted their research priorities to address the problem.

Two BSE diagnostic tests, which were proposed to help decide which animals to cull for BSE control, were developed respectively by an Irish and a Swiss company thanks to EU funding. The Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EU’s in-house science service, was instrumental in validating these two diagnostic tests and reference materials for the disease, helping to ensure that the same high standards of testing were used across Europe.

During the crisis and its aftermath over 200 people died from CJD, while 4.4 million cattle were slaughtered in the UK as part of the eradication programme.

Lasting legacy

As a result of the crisis, a European research group on BSE was formed, disease surveillance networks were strengthened, and links were set up between experts from human and veterinary medicine.

‘Very firm scientific relationships have been established that have lasted a very long time and continue to be productive in terms of publications and advancing scientific knowledge,’ said Professor Bob Will, from the University of Edinburgh, UK, a leading CJD expert. This research initiative was a crucial part of a broader coordination effort involving European and national authorities in food safety, which resulted in deep changes in the legislation and the practices in this field. It has helped form current regulations which stipulate that meat products must be labelled in such a way that an animal can be traced all the way back to the farm it came from. Research aimed at monitoring society became increasingly important in successiveFramework Programmes. To a large extent, as it showed how research could be put directly to the service of society, the EU’s response to the BSE crisis anticipated and pre-empted the focus on societal challenges that now forms the backbone of Horizon 2020.

Atlas of ‘Avoidable Death’

The inclusion of societal problems into research funding programmes came through evolution rather than revolution, but there were a number of landmark projects that helped to prove the value of pan-European health research. One example was an ambitious project that looked at how and why people die – and whether these deaths could have been avoided thanks to quicker and more efficient care.

By its sheer scale, the project which culminated in the publication of the European Community Atlas of ‘Avoidable Death’ in 1988 (which has been updated twice, most recently in 1997) was a perfect fit for a European venture - it allowed scientists to look at a much larger, more diverse population and examine genetic factors, lifestyle, and the differences in health systems and their efficiency. Ultimately, it helped improve the performance of health systems in Europe.

Because of the impact it had, the atlas was ‘a seminal study’, according to Professor Martin McKee, a specialist in European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The success of projects such as this proved to politicians, researchers and politicians that Europe had a unique role to play in health research. It was also an example of science that would go on to have an impact on society.