Antimedia

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.

07-08-05deframap3.jpg

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

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The good, the bad & the ugly

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, sheep, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 5, 2007

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.