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EU experts to assess health risk of new animal disease

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's food safety watchdog said on Tuesday it has been asked to assess the health risks posed by a new virus that has infected animals in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

The Schmallenberg virus, named after the German town where it was first discovered in November, has infected cattle, sheep, and goats, causing birth defects in offspring including deformation of the head, neck and limbs.

"The European Commission has requested urgent scientific and technical assistance for possible risks resulting from the Schmallenberg virus," the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in a statement.

EFSA will provide the Commission and EU governments with likely scenarios on how the insect-borne virus could affect livestock in the coming months, and will also assess possible risks to human health, the statement said.

"Nothing shows at this stage that the virus can infect human beings, but nevertheless we have asked EFSA to look into that as well," Commission health spokesman Frederic Vincent said, adding that an initial assessment by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had found little risk to humans.

Russia banned imports of sheep and goat meat and live animals from the Netherlands in the wake of the outbreak.

(Reporting by Charlie Dunmore; editing by Keiron Henderson)