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.

Defra’s Pirbright Lab suspect in FMD outbreak

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, ovine, Pirbright, porcine, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 4, 2007


It is a virus strain consistent with that found in laboratories, Defra says. A new exclusion zone includes Pirbright. The story is moving fast. But this disaster almost certainly originated in the government’s own FMD laboratory.


The Pirbright Laboratory of the Institute of Animal Health is the leading suspect as the source of the virus in UK’s ongoing FMD outbreak. The IAH is a quango sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It’s “clients” include Defra, the Department of Health, the Department of International Development, and a number of international organisations. Biohazardous research and training is commonly performed at Pirbright including a diagnostics course 16 – 27 of April 2007 including ample receipt and preparation for FMD virus/antigen/genome detection; use of cell cultures for FMD virus isolation; ELISA for FMD virus antigen detection; preparation of primary calf thyroid cells for use in diagnosis; RT-PCR for FMD virus genome detection; FMD virus antibody detection by liquid phase blocking ELISA, solid phase blocking ELISA, virus neutralisation test and Cedi test FMD virus strain characterisation.

The laboratory is practically adjacent to the infected premises in the current outbreak and inside the 10km surveillance zone.

According to route mapping software the distance by road is 8.5km but as the crow flies it is closer to 5km. The Pirbright lab is somewhat south of Pirbright so the distance may be even closer.

If confirmed as the source this would represent a disastrous biosecurity breech by the government’s leading epizootic research establishment.

The laboratory is a world reference centre for and has major responsibilities to the Office International des Épizooties (OIE) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for the diagnosis of diseases in an emergency. The diagnostic services are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The list of diseases for which diagnostic services are provided includes FMD and it is known that all known strains of FMD are held at Pirbright on a reference basis.

Here are two more questions: (1) If there has been a biosecurity breech was it deliberate or a mistake? (2) Given that FMD has long been considered a potential biological weapon, are the police involved in the investigation at Pirbright? (If not, why not?) The refusal to state the viral strain implicated does not bode well for official transparency.

Mean fields: foot & mouth redux

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, ovine, porcine, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 4, 2007

STOP PRESS 1: Defra Chief Vet Debby Reynolds (!) said at a press conference just concluded that she has asked Defra’s own Pirbright FMD lab in Surrey to review its biosecurity arrangements! This is a most peculiar disclosure and implies suspicion that virus in Surrey outbreak may have escaped from Defra’s own lab! It is evident that journalists at this press conference were the same clueless zombies who covered this so badly last time.

STOP PRESS 2: At same Defra press conference the malign continuing influence of the NFU was cleary demonstrated. An NFU spokesman was permitted to share the podium with the chief vet and spout NFU propaganda but of course there were no representatives from the very large rural interests not represented by the NFU. This is a very bad sign. NFU has an economic interest in slaughter. Note to Gordon Brown: these guys are NOT your friends. Cut them off at the knees.

QUESTION RAISED ANEW BY (1) above: What is the FMD virus strain? Why are we not told? They have had plenty of time to determine this. Could it be this is a strain currently found only at Pirbright? Or not so bright…

INTERESTING FACT: Distance from infected premises to Pirbright: 5km. Now isn’t that one hell of a coincidence?


The last time foot and mouth disease swept the country in 2001 it triggered mendacity, stupidity, senseless waste and venality that it is painful to recall. The big beef farmers represented by the NFU wept crocodile tears as their herds were slaughtered and subsequently cashed compensation cheques for millions of pounds.

The government response was a shambles. The vets ignored their professional oath and slaughtered animals they knew to be healthy. Animals were seized for slaughter despite this being clearly illegal. (The government later changed the law and now the vets can kill whatever they want, whether it is diseased or not.) Hefted sheep and pet goats – all were killed although they were perfectly healthy.

With the Prince of Wales berating him (pace Alastair Campbell) Tony Blair rushed to take personal command of the situation but not for the last time, found that the levers of power he imagined to exist in Downing Street are not actually connected to much.

In the Sunday Times I revealed in the first week that foot and mouth is not a serious disease and that animals that catch it usually recover. The disease is easily controlled using vaccines that are cheap and easy to administer. I interviewed the minister in charge of what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, finding an amiable buffoon named Nick Brown, who was shortly afterwards demoted.

I discovered that there was no serious foot and mouth contingency plan although in North America vets and agriculture officials rehearse epizootics constantly.

The ministry was seized with a mentality that seemed grounded in the digging for victory schemes of World War 2. Modern science played no part in the ministry’s ideology to “stamp out” this benign disease by means of an unimaginably destructive, environmentally disgusting and costly policy of mass slaughter.

These reports in The Sunday Times stirred a tidal wave of opposition to the slaughters and it was also one of the first mass uses of the Internet in Britain to rally opposition to a government policy. Tony Blair was even forced to delay elections. The fury and authority of the opposition subsequently resulted in the ministry being closed down, although much of it was unfortunately reborn within the new Department of Farming and Rural Affairs.

The ultimate cost of this wretched affair was, I estimate, £20 billion; the government figure of a mere £8.5 billion doesn’t count the collateral damage to tourism and the rural economy.

This was supposedly justified because somehow the expense was necessary to protect Britain’s vital stake in the meat export trade, although this is worth perhaps worth 1 per cent of this sum. I hope Gordon Brown will not permit a repeat of this exercise in which NFU members looted the treasury while the countryside was shut down.

One can pray that the government has learned its lessons from last time. The new chief vet, Debby Reynolds, presumably no relation, seems possibly more sensible that the primitives in charge last time. But Defra is still hopeless as its £450million cock-up of the single farm payments scheme proved (the author of this, Margaret Beckett, was subsequently promoted by Tony Blair to be his last, improbable, foreign secretary.)

We now need evidence that Defra has learned its lessons. The initial signs are mixed. Defra at least seems to be working this weekend. But we still need to know more about what is going on. Worst of all, we really do not know Defra’s policy. There are worrying signs it is still inclined to killing everything in sight, and not inclined to recognise that the science of immunisation has moved on, since 1929.

I am now 4 km from the edge of the surveillance zone in Surrey and the countryside here is covered in cattle and sheep. Why are these animals not being vaccinated?

Chief vet Debby Reynolds (I think)