The UK government has been accused of paying too much attention to epidemiologists over other experts
In the spring of 2001, Britain was wracked by its first large scale epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease since the late 1960s. The country’s livestock farmers were still embroiled in the lockdown that accompanied Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), a neurological disease of cattle, that would slash beef consumption and exports for a decade.
Now they faced the risk of further curbs on animal sales, and the possible mass culling of their herds. Much depended on whether the government got on top of the outbreak fast. Concerned at blithe official statements that the disease was under control, with the implication that aggressive countermeasures would not be needed, one official suggested turning to a novel source to investigate the course of the infection.
Sir John Krebs, then chairman of the British Food Standards Agency, encouraged the government’s new chief scientific adviser, David King, to recruit epidemiologists at three universities — Imperial College London, Cambridge and Edinburgh — to model the evolution of the disease. It wasn’t the first time that computer models had been built to study epidemics. The innovation was to try to do it in real time, in order to guide the response.
The independent modellers quickly exploded the government’s optimistic assumptions, showing the outbreak was on course to be far larger, and to spread faster, than officials expected. The government ramped up its response, imposing pre-emptive culls inside cordons around infected farmsteads, ultimately slaughtering 6m animals.
The extent to which modelling helped remains disputed...