LivingJuan José Badiola:

Juan José Badiola:

Since the appearance of the first case of affected cow in Spain, how has the risk assessment changed in our country?
-I think it hasn’t changed at all. Those of us who work on spongiform encephalopathies hoped that cases would appear here.

Why were they so sure?
-Because the geographic risk assessment had already announced it. No European country is exempt from suffering a case of mad cows, and therefore Spain could not be an exception. Especially because Spain is between two nations that have an epidemic. No matter how many legal barriers are put up, the possibility of someone committing an illegality is there, especially in times of transition, which are very dangerous.

What do you mean by moments of transition?
-Well, at those moments in which a country is torn between declaring a case or not, in which the news causes prices to fall and people take advantage of the uncertainty to sell certain products.

Which implies that there may have been undetected cases and that they will surely come to light.
-Yes. There could be undetected cases. But I am calm. Although it may seem paradoxical to some, the appearance of cases of infected cows in Spain shows that we have an epidemiological detection system that works and that it is a sufficiently sensitive method to be able to detect what I believe is a low level of prions in the system Spanish rancher.

What could be the origin of future cases in Spain?
-They could have arrived here either through imported animals or children of imported ones, or as a result of fraud that concerns feed: illegal inputs or feed treatments.

Is it okay for you to ban animal meals for both cows and pigs and poultry?
-Yes. For pigs and poultry these flours are not dangerous, but there may be cross contamination and they are the origin of several cases of mad cows in Europe.

It is clear that zero risk has not existed in Spain. But can the real risk be quantified in any way?
-It is very difficult. Let’s see how the data evolves. In any case, I believe that we are in the group of infection in cows with a maximum of 18 cases. It is a group of what we call low prion levels, to which other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands belong. It is clear that we cannot speak of an epidemic in Spain.

And what about the risk in humans?
-I don’t dare to make that kind of prediction. Although, in view of the evolution of European cases, there is a more or less direct relationship between the number of cases in cows and the number of cases in people. That ratio is very low. For this reason, I do not expect human cases in Spain, unless they are people who have had a high contact with the outside and have eaten contaminated meat in other countries, during the period of maximum risk.

Do you think that the latest measures adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture are sufficient?
-I think they are going to improve a system that has already shown its benefits.

The Ministry proposes to carry out around 300,000 annual tests to cows before they go up the food chain. How will do?
-I will give you an example: suppose a community like Castilla-La Mancha where some 25,000 tests will be carried out. A local laboratory prepared to receive the brains must first have been set up, from the slaughterhouse or from the farms in the case of dead animals before reaching the slaughterhouse. Half a gram of fresh material will be taken from the area of the brainstem of the brain of the dead animal (called obex) to make the rapid test in situ. Another piece will be introduced in 10% formaldehyde. If both obtain negative results in your test, the process is finished and that cow can be marketed. If the result is positive or doubtful, the cow is immobilized and the formalin sample is sent to us so that we can analyze it.

What type of test is done here?
-The technique is called immunobloting. It is a test made in Switzerland that costs about 4,000 pesetas. If the costs of labor, handling, etc. are added, each test can cost 8,000 pesetas.

In some media it has been published that the National Reference Laboratory that you direct lacks the necessary security measures to avoid contamination …
-We manipulate all the brains inside a laminar flow safety hood. It’s all under control. The information that has appeared about the lack of security is not true.

What types of brains are they investigating here?
-Here we get several dozen samples each week from sheep, goat and cow brains. In the case of cows, these are animals that have suspicious symptoms of nervous disease or that have suffered a progressive pathology. We also receive samples of cows of foreign origin.

And that was how the first case of mad cow was detected, coming from Galicia.
-The story was as follows: I received the first suspected case in early October or late September. Already the injury profile seemed doubtful to me, very unclear. We did the immunocytochemistry to detect the prion in the tissue itself using a monoclonal antibody and the result was not conclusive. A possibility of prion presence appeared but not very intense. We had to change the protocol, and still we didn’t get a conclusive sample.

And decided not to make it public …
-Light man. We were facing the possibility of declaring the first case diagnosed in Spain, we had to be very cautious. That is why I decided to go to my European colleagues. Specifically, I commissioned a test from a British laboratory, since that is the country with the most experience in evil. They weren’t able to tell me anything either. So we informed the Spanish authorities that our diagnosis was not conclusive.

And, officially, in Spain there were still no mad cows.
-Yes. But in that period of time another case arrived at the laboratory. And this time it was a book injury profile and a very clear pathological PRP reaction (the prion). There was no doubt: it was a mad cow.

In any case, it seems that the time that passes between the reception of the first case and the public communication that a sick cow has been found in Spain is quite long.
-In doubtful cases, yes. You have to confirm the data very well before launching the alarm. In clear cases, the reaction of the authorities should be almost immediate. And I have to say that the Ministry of Agriculture has acted with great reflexes.

And in those doubtful cases, what do you do with the animals in the same cabin?
-The whole cabin is immobilized. The suspicious animal is eliminated and does not enter the food chain. The rest of his family must wait for events without being able to commercialize any product derived from it. This process should not take more than two or three days.

And is it possible to analyze and take action in such a short time?
-Is this possible to do. When too many analyzes are put together we prioritize the animals that are waiting for their meat at the slaughterhouse to be consumed and we leave in the queue the dead animals on the farm or in the field and that are not going to reach the consumer in any way.

The Ministry of Agriculture has taken the lead in managing this crisis. Don’t you think that this work would correspond to Health?
– I believe that it is a subject of the two ministries and that both must act at the same level. Curiously, the first legislation in this regard was prepared by the Ministry of Health in 1996. But, later, the program was located in Agriculture.

The Ministry of Health said that cheap meat is more dangerous than expensive meat.
-The price of meat should not be a factor to take into account. The cost depends, for example, on the muscle piece chosen. All parts of the muscle are identical for infectivity purposes.

Spain seems like a geographical island, a territory surrounded by contaminated countries that, for some reason, has been better protected.
-The cases of France and Portugal are clearly related to the importation of meat and bone meal from Great Britain. A much smaller number of tons have been imported into Spain and, furthermore, a very small percentage of them comes from Great Britain. Here, more plant-based flours have been used, which has allowed us to better protect the bovine population. The only thing left to know is to what extent our cows are free from evil.

Can we be sure that we know how evil is transmitted?
-Despite all that we have advanced, there is still no in-depth knowledge of how all the cows in the UK have been contaminated. But what it does seem is that it has a lot to do with food. The most likely hypothesis is that the treatment system of the recycling plants for cadaver materials has been changed.
The congenital route is not fully demonstrated in cows, but it is in sheep.

And is it certain which parts of the cow are infectious?
– International official documents consider the brain, spinal cord, eyes, dorsal root ganglia, trigeminal nerve ganglia, ileum and tonsils to be infectious. In sheep and goats, the spleen is also infectious.
That is, in practical terms, if you eliminate the brain, spinal cord, eyes, ganglia, and dorsal roots, you are eliminating more than 98 percent of the danger.

And what about the remaining 2 percent?
-I believe that there are other parts of the cow that are not contained here and whose infectious power is not well known.

Does that mean that most of the affected people in Europe have eaten viscera?
-I think it doesn’t taste good. If they even say that there are sick people who declare themselves vegetarians! It is true that the consumption of these viscera is very rare. But don’t you think they may have been mixed with other foods?

With such a degree of uncertainty, do you think science can comfort the consumer?
– If in some way my work can contribute to reassure people, I will do it with pleasure. But, honestly, when I go to the requests of the media, I go with the internal conviction that there are some things that science cannot answer. For example, there are areas of the body of cows that are not yet known if they are infective.

What about other transmission routes? For example, blood transfusions?
– Until now in the animal world it has not been shown that blood is dangerous. There is a recent work published in The Lancet that has caused quite a stir because it claimed that prions could be transmitted through blood.

And does it seem little to you?
-Well, I’ll tell you that on the day that article was published we were meeting twenty European experts in Brussels discussing the case of the disease in sheep. They were all very outraged. Some of them even dropped the view that The Lancet was losing face and starting to look like a tabloid. There were too many weak points in this work on blood to be definitive. I think it can be said that in the animal world it is not proven that blood is infective. And that is fundamental, because if we accept that blood contaminates, the scenario changes completely.

-Because then any part of the body is contaminated.

But let me insist. Can we say that blood is not a threat or simply that it is not yet known if it is?
-So far the experiments that have been done do not show infectivity. In the future I cannot put my hand in the fire, but with the data we have today, there is no danger.

Even so, there are countries that have banned the export of all types of meat based on this risk. Even Spanish meat.
-Well, I don’t know for what reason. Today, science does not justify that measure.

Certain vaccines have also been withdrawn in the UK.
-Some vaccines are made with fetal and embryonic cells or materials from bovine, bird or other animals. But the use of cattle has long been banned for cosmetic and pharmaceutical uses.

There has also been talk, from the Association of the Patient Defender, of a possible variant of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob related to the use of some radiopharmaceutical …
-I really have many doubts that this is true. Rather I think it is another disease and in any case, a classic Creutzfeldt-Jakob, but not communicable.

What other prions are in nature besides cows?
-There are them in sheep (up to more than 20 lines), in minks, in cats, in moose and wild deer in the United States and, of course, in people.

Are they all related to encephalopathies?
-Yes, I do not know that there are prions related to other diseases. Its strategy is always, whatever its origin, to stay in the brain.

Are there any immune animals?
-We know a type of sheep with a resistant genotype. They are animals whose genes protect them for life against evil, even if they are infected. In them, the progression of the prion is so slow that they do not develop encephalopathy.

That could be helpful in treating the disease.
-Undoubtedly. I am convinced that the possibilities of treatment in humans will come from the use of drugs that slow down the progression of the prion.

That’s a long way to go, right?
“Well, don’t believe it … There is nothing that progresses as quickly as a scientist with money.” There are currently 35 research projects in Europe dedicated exclusively to prion research. I believe that, with sufficient means, some of them may be surprised.

Jorge Mayor


This interview was published in January 2001, in number 236 of VERY Interesting.

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