What the hell is going on at Pirbright?

Posted in agriculture, disease, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, Media, NFU, ovine, Pirbright, sheep, Terrorism, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 5, 2007

One thing definitely upgraded since the 2001 FMD disaster is the government’s management of information. A good thing for them because the disclosure that the current FMD epizootic could be “made in Whitehall” ought to be a considerable scandal and probably would be if the hacks were not so dense. As in 2001 the best information is not coming from the mainstream media but the bloggers of which Warmwell is the gold standard.

On Sunday we had a choreographed series of news conferences in which the hand of synchronity was readily discernable. The prime minister himself – caring and serious, doing everything possible, stressing the countryside was still open. So that’s all right, then.

The Institute for Animal Health was the first to come out pointing the finger. I think they may have been represented by Gene Kelly, in his softest shuffling shoes. I do not claim to understand this outfit. They may or may not be responsible for Pirbright, it is hard to tell. I confess I am not even clear who owns the freehold, who has the licences, or who issues them. Anyway, they are the first, emerging to say they are cooperating with the government but that their biosecurity is flawless. As even the hacks could figure, this implicity points the finger at Merial Animal Health. Merial has a lab at Pirbright but the relationship with the Institute remains opaque.

So Merial sends a spokesman, a Mr Donald O’Connor, of fancy footwork, to say that they are cooperating with the government too and their biosecurity is also flawless. Or maybe this was Homer Simpson. One could say he is dancing to the suggestion that the virus could have escaped from the next-door Nissen hut. This could be construed as pointing an implicit finger at the Institute. But Merial is the obvious fall-guy, guilty or not. Whitehall was already briefing on Sunday night that Merial is their prime suspect. There is a suggestion that investigators may have identified an individual as a vector of contact. Stay tuned.

This was a shameful moment for Sky and the BBC live from the scene whose reporters were professionally raped by Merial. What is the point of satellite uplink trucks if your reporters are zombies? No questions were permitted of Merial, despite their status as prime suspect! This is news management at the logical extreme – the journalists are treated simply as conduits. Reporters should have protested and physically obstructed the Merial executive from leaving without answering any. But the days of real journalism are long gone.

Then the chief vet, the glamorous former Hollywood star Debby Reynolds appeared, telling us that more animals were being killed and that it was too soon to judge the cause of the outbreak. This is of course ridiculous in that it is obvious the cause of the outbreak was a biosecurity failure at Pirbright, even if the specific vector is not yet told us. The question is: what is and has really been going on at Pirbright? If the questions are being asked at all, they are not being answered in public.

Can someone help me on the history, please? Am I wrong that Pirbright was once a MAFF research station? What exactly has happened recently or is it a longstanding arrangement that this collection of not quite Nissen huts on the Hog’s Back (irony) has become some kind of public-private virus campus? Does anyone know or care what is in fact the nature of the science happening at this place? Should it be there at all? It has London at its front door and the countryside in the back garden. It sounds like a Michael Crichton novel waiting to happen. Except it has already happened. Is this where we want to create our virus pole? I do not recall anyone being asked.

Whether or not the government’s administration, strategy and delivery on animal health are much better this time around than in 2001 remains to be seen. Disregarding that the outbreak started at a quasi non governmental complex. They have been oddly lucky this time – I don’t think there is much evidence of movement and none so far of spread. I will already concede they have been a little less dreadful than last time. La Reynolds is certainly an improvement on the sinister Mr Scudamore. But the NFU still seems to retain a veto on policy. Why can’t ministers see through this cartel? Is it because it claims to be a union, and appeals to some left-over leftish nostalgia among our “Labour” rulers? Ministers must know that the NFU’s purpose is to drain the treasury. It’s as democratic as the Soviet Union (using a remarkably similar voting system). That’s all.

If you look at Pirbright on Google earth it is a mess and who can tell whose lab belongs to who? The Tories may be on to something if they start sniffing for maladministration. It seems certain money has a part to play in this, and the desire of the government to spend less. The government real-terms cutback on animal health seems to have coincided with its outsourcing to an animal health quango. Is this part of the government or not? Yes – and no. It seems sure that conflicts of interest are built in.

We need to know much, much more about Pirbright. It seems clear there were warnings – ignored – of an inherently unsatisfactory biosecurity environment. There seem to me also some commercial questions to consider and whether there is a conflict between commercial activities and government research labs sharing the same site, when that site is well known to be largely obsolete and is poorly located for the work it does.

I do not know but I am not clear that it is comfortable that the Institute is seeking contracts on its own account while apparently simultaneously making facilities available to private companies such as Merial. What exactly are these relationships? All these contracts are doubtless marked “commercially confidential”. They will not want us to know.

The real danger of FMD is that it provokes mad administration syndrome, in which vast sums of money are spent protecting people who are grown up and should look after themselves. Nobody else is compensated like these big commercial farmers. Make no mistake. This is agribusiness. FMD and our response to it are the product of a diseased agricultural economy, in which European policy plays a part but Britain’s unique talent for maladministration makes everything worse.

The evil NFU plays a malign continuing influence and it is a subsidiary scandal that the media continues to treat them as a legitimate authority without pointing out the commercial interests of the people who run this organisation. Gordon Brown should ask himself why the government uniquely compensates the NFU’s members for business risk, and nobody else (except arms dealers). Farmers should insure themselves for epizootic risks, and the government should allow those who wish to innoculate their animals to do so.

Oversight and accountability are not features of the British political process and there will be less than ever now the government has mastered the tricks of concealing information and most of the media has given up looking beyond the official sources.

My neighbours are furious. The single word reaction of one of them last night, when I encountered him after making silage, was: “Bastards.” This is a widely held view. No matter how often the gorgeous Debby Reynolds bats her eyelashes.

In my neigbhborhood, which remains 5km from the surveillance zone, the initials NFU have long been widely regarded to stand for No Fucking Use. Click here for excellent (if now slightly dated) report on the NFU.

I am amused to discover that the search term “virus escape” generates 2,290,000 “hits” on Google.

Magnus Luinklater who was magnificent in 2001 is on top-form in The Times today. He is a solid writer.

Many of my old allies and friends from 2001 are returning to the radar screen. Warmwell, one of the best is here.


Update: I am now 2km from the edge of the surveillance zone.

7 Responses

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  1. Pat Gardiner said, on August 5, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Some of you will have seen Debby Reynolds being questioned on BBC not long ago.

    I’m not going to beat about the bush: she was evasive and shifty. I do not think anyone will disagree.

    She was asked “how many farms had been culled?”

    She hesitated for a very long time, and then rambled on about one being a home farm with two separate outlying pieces.

    This is not a complicated question; she should be able to answer. Unfortunately the interviewer let her get away with it. Can we start a petition to get Paxman on the case?

    I think it is about four separate farmers one with three separate plots, but I’m not sure either.

    BTW they interviewed a cattle/sheep farmer with a very complacent attitude and a very unSurrey accent mentioning that he would get compensation so it did not matter, although he would not like to lose his in-calf heifers hr had raised

    I think they may have extended the zones southward later today, but I’m not really sure. This is all very unsatisfactory.

    It is also completely pointless keeping the names of the farmer’s secret. What do they think they have got – AIDS?

    Having lived through three epidemics outside my door and having healthy pigs slaughtered in 2000, I’m sure all right minded people are sympathetic to anyone with problems and will keep well away.

    The media is a special case. It is their job to get the facts, by being objectionable if necessary. They are not doing very well.

  2. Lina said, on August 6, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    They appear to have had a drill using live viruses, how insane is that?

  3. Lina said, on August 6, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    I am hoping you could tell me why, Pirbright was
    researching a 1967 FMD virus strain, and why the lab.
    was not locked down immediately after they had this,
    obviously, security breach, as the virus, did escape.
    It is my understanding that Pirbright is a level 6
    Which would mean that they would have to lock
    down if there is a security breach.
    It is clear this did not happen.
    Even worse they at first lied about it, cause you can
    not tell me they had not noticed.

  4. Sue Sampson said, on August 6, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Another one of your ‘old allies’ checking in 😉 . I don’t think we ever went away!

  5. Michael Huntsman said, on August 6, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    I hesitate to deploy profanity, but a Good Old Boy down the Fen once told me that NFU stood for ‘Nother Fuck Up.

    And that was thirty years ago when my ears were a lot more sensitive than they are today!

    Great Blog: informative and with a delicate cutting action…

  6. Michael Huntsman said, on August 7, 2007 at 12:21 am

    Further to my earlier post, I may be a country boy but I can read a map. East Wyke Fm appears to me to be at about 70 metres above sea level but the research lab at about 35-40 (online map a bit hazy, but I think that is right). If that is so, flood carrying the pathogen would have to defy gravity.

    Or am I missing something? Or merely thick?

  7. Jane Barribal said, on August 8, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Hi Jonathan!

    As you know, I’ve been in favour of FMD vaccination since 2001.

    The answer has to be to get rid of FMD Free Status. Its not worth keeping to protect 1% of our GDP
    Give farmers the choice to vaccinate their own stock or not and let them bear all the costs whatever they decide.
    The benefits would be –
    Improved animal welfare.
    Trade in the unrestricted markets at home and abroad.
    Reduction of Govt costs which are always passed on to the taxpayer.

    Farmers may moan, but it’s time we all stood on our own feet on a level playing field world wide . FMD Free Status only provides selfish protectionist legislation and runs the risk of a repetition of the catastrophe that was FMD 2001. If we keep it, FMD will always be back again at sometime in the future. If we vaccinate and try to persuade the rest of the world to do the same we could ,eventually, eradicate the disease worldwide.
    The UK famers who care, will become even more efficient and continue to breed and rear good livestock, export them and sell their meat at home or abroad.
    We just need to be brave, that’s all!

    Best wishes – Jane

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