The public health threat represented by a potential circulation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy agent in sheep population has led European animal health authorities to launch large screening and genetic selection programmes. If demonstrated, such a circulation would have dramatic economic consequences for sheep breeding sector. In this context, it is important to evaluate the feasibility of qualification procedures that would allow sheep breeders demonstrating their flock is free from scrapie. Classical approaches, based on surveys designed to detect disease presence, do not account for scrapie specificities: the genetic variations of susceptibility and the absence of live diagnostic test routinely available. Adapting these approaches leads to a paradoxical situation in which a greater amount of testing is needed to substantiate disease freedom in genetically resistant flocks than in susceptible flocks, whereas probability of disease freedom is a priori higher in the former than in the latter. The goal of this study was to propose, evaluate and compare several qualification strategies for demonstrating a flock is free from scrapie.
A probabilistic framework was defined that accounts for scrapie specificities and allows solving the preceding paradox. Six qualification strategies were defined that combine genotyping data, diagnostic tests results and flock pedigree. These were compared in two types of simulated flocks: resistant and susceptible flocks. Two strategies allowed demonstrating disease freedom in several years, for the majority of simulated flocks: a strategy in which all the flock animals are genotyped, and a strategy in which only founders animals are genotyped, the flock pedigree being known. In both cases, diagnostic tests are performed on culled animals. The less costly strategy varied according to the genetic context (resistant or susceptible) and to the relative costs of a genotyping exam and of a diagnostic test.
This work demonstrates that combining data sources allows substantiating a flock is free from scrapie within a reasonable time frame. Qualification schemes could thus be a useful tool for voluntary or mandatory scrapie control programmes. However, there is no general strategy that would always minimize the costs and choice of the strategy should be adapted to local genetic conditions.