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Minimising ‘false positives’ key to vaccinating against bovine TB

last modified May 25, 2016 11:23 AM
New diagnostic tests are needed to make vaccination against bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB) viable and the number of false positives from these tests must be below 15 out of every 10,000 cattle tested, according to research published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

Using mathematical modelling, researchers at the University of Cambridge and Animal & Plant Health Agency, Surrey, show that it is the specificity of the test – the proportion of uninfected animals that test negative – rather than the efficacy of a vaccine, that is the dominant factor in determining whether vaccination can provide a protective economic benefit when used to supplement existing controls.


Bovine TB is a major economic disease of livestock worldwide. Despite an intensive, and costly, control programme in the United Kingdom, the disease continues to persist. Vaccination using the human vaccine Mycobacterium bovis bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) offers some protection in cattle, but is currently illegal within the European Union (EU) due to its interference with the tuberculin skin test. This test is the cornerstone of surveillance and eradication strategies and is used to demonstrate progress towards national eradication and as the basis of international trade in cattle.

The current tuberculin skin test has a very high estimated specificity of over 99.97%, which means that less than three animals in 10,000 will test falsely positive. The test as carried out in Great Britain is thought to have at best an 80% sensitivity – a measure of how many infected animals will correctly test positive – missing around 1 in 5 bovine TB-infected cattle. It is used to determine if animals, herds and countries are officially free of bovine TB. Read more..