The good, the bad & the ugly
I told you so yesterday afternoon and today all newspapers confirm that the FMD outbreak was a consequence of a biosecurity failure at the government’s own animal health laboratory.
The most searching and independent investigation is now required into the circumstances, although it may not lead anywhere. I have consulted my microbiology consultant at Cambridge who points out that biosecurity is never a matter of preventing a virus escape but merely of possibly delaying one.
It is in the nature of these viruses that they are sneaky. Prof. Brian Spratt of Imperial College has been appointed by Defra to head an inquiry into biosecurity at Pirbright. We need to know much more about terms of reference and potential conflicts before it can be accepted that this is a satisfactory approach. I would like to know that the police are involved, for a start, since Pirbright is potentially a crime scene.
A very initial thought: this outbreak may not be so bad, despite the damning and bizarre circumstances. Defra was faster to stop animal movements. The farms around Pirbright are pretty small and movements fairly limited anyway. So far there’s no evidence infected animals have been through the livestock markets.
If this was, say, a case of a lab worker running shoulders at the pub with a cowman, or a delivery vehicle stopping off at Pirbright, picking up the 01 BFS67 virus and dropping it off at the farm around the corner, and given the relatively small number of ruminants and especially pigs in the neighbourhood (often not much more than pets), this outbreak could be contained quickly.
It would be sensible to ring vaccinate now but I can’t see Defra letting this happen. So they will slaughter probably only a few hundred animals and get away with it. Still, there are plenty of open questions.
Terrorism is bound to be raised as a hypothesis. I’m very sceptical that there is a cell of Islamic veterinarians behind this, notwithstanding the supposed Glasgow doctor plot.
Cock-up and carelessness and inevitability seem more probable causes. Pirbright let an antique FMD virus out the door, which merrily and predictably infected cattle in an almost adjacant smallholding in Surrey. Or perhaps it was not Pirbright, but a commercial lab that seems to have established itself at Pirbright. It would be good to know who is responsible for biosecurity at this complex.
So, the presumption must be the virus release was accidental and/or negligent rather than criminal. Although criminal cannot be excluded.
A more inconvenient truth about Pirbright is that it is the wrong laboratory in the wrong place. The American equivalent FMD lab is on an island and answers to the Department of Homeland Security. Putting an virology lab next to the A323 might seem a counter-intuitive arrangement.
We need to know much more about Pirbright and the Institute for Animal Health, the quango that operates it and its current relationship with Defra. The annual report is here. The IAH claims to be “advancing, safeguarding and improving” animal health whereas in fact it has recently accomplished something else entirely. The commercial relationships of the IAH are also pretty opaque. To what extent had the IAH turned Pirbright into a vaccine factory, operated by a French pharma company? These are things we need to know.
What is the government strategy? We need to know whether they will again adopt a hateful and disgusting slaughter of healthy animals to protect the meat export market, which at a few hundred millions a year is an irrelevent proportion of Britain’s international trade.
I fear that Defra will again find excuses not to vaccinate and will instead slaughter on suspicion, hoping that this time they can do it more discreetly. Also, the law has been changed now so nobody will be able to resist without commiting a criminal offence themselves.
The spin control is already better. Debby Reynolds, after her lengthy Hollywood career and retraining as chief vet, is less obviously sinister than her predecessor although she is not a natural media performer. I was not impressed by her press conference performance on Saturday or that she recognises full and frank disclosure is vital to the interests of the rural community and the nation.
(Another spin control: Helicopters are now banned from recording the scenes of slaughter. Defra says this is to avoid causing “panic” in the animals but of course it is actually to spare the authorities from being broadcast at their dirty work. The animals in this case live in Surrey, where the sky is always full of helicopters anyway, and not just in Surrey, but almost next to Farnborough airport.)
We need to hope the media does better. The vaccination issue seems much more alive this time than it did at the start of the last outbreak. Reporters must also learn to recognise the NFU for what it is – an organisation representing the biggest and dirtiest commercial farmers, whose business is industrial production and subsidy farming.
More updates through the day.
The latest Defra release is here.
FAO note specifying biosecurity standards for such facilities as Pirbright is here.