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Muckspreader: Private Eye 17 November 2005

The penny has by now pretty generally dropped that, even by its own standards, Defra has not exactly covered itself with glory in its response to the ‘Asian bird flu pandemic’ (the one which an official of the World Health Organisation predicted could lead to ‘150 million deaths’ worldwide). This began, it will be recalled, with the ‘dead parrot’ fiasco, when, in a shed in Essex run by a man with a criminal record for fraud, a parrot from Surinam supposedly died of what the media love to call the ‘deadly H5N1 virus’.

First it was discovered that there was not one dead parrot but two. Then Defra admitted that the samples from these birds (which were not in fact parrots but caiques) had got muddled up with those taken from a consignment of mynah birds imported from Taiwan. So it wasn’t at all clear whether the infection had come from South America or Asia. But, as ‘a working hypothesis’, Defra was now assuming that it had come from Taiwan (thus enraging the Taiwanese government, since inspection of the farm where the mynahs came from found no trace of infection). Defra then admitted that the Taiwanese birds were not mynahs but mesia finches, three of which had died from bird flu. This only enraged the Taiwanese authorities even more, since they suspected the finches had been smuggled from the Chinese mainland, where the H5N1 virus has been established for some years. The smugglers had used false papers from Taiwan, where H5N1 has never been known.

Entertaining though the ‘dead parrot’ sketch may have been, a still more alarming measure of Defra’s incompetence came to light when the chief vet, Debby Reynolds, invited in the Tory agriculture team and the MPs on the Commons select committee for a ‘technical briefing’. All the ministry’s official top brass were present, including the permanent under-secretary and Defra’s chief scientific adviser Professor Howard Dalton. After an initial lecturette from Ms Reynolds, who clearly assumed the MPs knew little or nothing about the subject, the mood became rather more tense when the Tories’ livestock spokesman, Owen Paterson, began subjecting the ministry experts to more probing questions than they had bargained for.

The central issue, Mr Paterson pointed out, was to establish which sub-type of the H5N1 virus had been identified in the samples taken to Defra’s Weybridge lab. There are several sub-types of this virus, but only three have been shown to be infectious to human beings. Could Ms Reynolds and her colleagues say whether the tests had found any of these sub-types? Although the question had to be repeated three times, Ms Reynolds and her team refused to answer. It was painfully obvious that they didn’t know. Either their tests had not been thorough enough; or, worse, they couldn’t even grasp why this was so important.

The opinion of genuine experts (who clearly do not include anyone at the top of Defra) is that the only way bird flu might affect anyone in Europe is the very remote chance that the virus from an infected bird imported from Asia might happen to combine genetically with a human flu virus. Theoretically this might add the pathogenicity of one to the infectivity of the other. But the odds against this happening are probably several billions to one. The odds against Defra getting its act together on this issue might well be even greater.