Defra is like a dead swan. Discuss

By Magnus Linklater (THE TIMES, 12/04/06):

The dead swan has been safely tucked away in the laboratory’s deep freeze. The scare story has retreated to the inside pages. The Government’s chief scientist pronounces himself happy with the way the outbreak has been handled. There is really nothing much left to trouble us, it seems, about this avian flu business — save for the tell-tale whiff of complacency hanging in the air.

The way that the Government and the poultry industry responded to the discovery of an H5N1-infected bird in Scotland was, by all accounts, calm and professional; the precautions taken were swift and exemplary. Just one swan infected out of more than 1,100 birds tested suggests that we are not witnessing the early stages of a pandemic. We can be quietly satisfied with the way our procedures worked.

We can? Why, then, are we still shuttling dead birds across the country to the single laboratory capable of testing them, when there is a sophisticated and foolproof form of local testing that could diagnose the virus in under six hours? Why do ministers continue to tell us that vaccination of birds at risk does not work when detailed scientific analysis from the Far East shows not only that it prevents the spread of the disease, but can eliminate it as well, without the risks that are routinely cited as the main impediment to its use? Why does the chief scientist Sir David King talk about a possible requirement to end free-range flocks, when all the evidence suggests that the disease spreads quickest among intensively farmed poultry? Why are we still intending to slaughter millions of healthy birds at the first sign of a proper outbreak when we know that it is unnecessary? Why, in short, have we learnt so little about these animal pandemics and how to control them?

I have a theory. I even have a solution. But first the facts: there is a device called a Rapid PCR machine, which has been developed in the United States, to carry out instant diagnosis of diseases such as swine fever, foot-and-mouth and avian flu. It costs about £40,000 per machine, with each individual test costing £3 a time. It can be operated by any trained vet.

Professor Roger Breeze, former head of the US Department of Agriculture’s laboratory at Plum Island, looking at the tests carried out in Britain after the discovery of the Cellardyke swan, has calculated that just nine of these devices, located across Scotland, would have cost less than £500,000 and done the job of testing 1,000 suspect birds in a tenth of the time that it took to ship them south to Weybridge.

The Rapid PCR is being used in many countries where “zoonotic” diseases (the ones that can be passed from animals to humans) have occurred. There are, however, no plans to introduce it here. The same blinkered view informs the outlook of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on vaccination, which has not changed essentially since the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. Every minister and every official, taking their cue from government scientists, dutifully repeats that vaccines would only “mask” the disease rather than control it. Ben Bradshaw, the Defra Minister, claims that “overwhelming scientific advice” shows that the disadvantages of their use greatly outweigh the advantages. Clearly he has not read the detailed scientific papers on the Hong Kong and Vietnam outbreaks, where the opposite has been proved: that vaccination can control and eliminate avian flu and that tests can establish whether it is still present or hidden.

What is disturbing about so many of the statements coming out of Defra — about the need to bring free-range flocks indoors, to end organic farming, to “monitor” but never to introduce vaccination — is that they are made by people with little first-hand knowledge of the one science they should be on top of: virology. There is brilliant work being done in research centres in Britain on zoonotic diseases and the vaccines needed to control them, but it rarely seems to filter upwards to Defra. After the privatisation of much of this work in the Thatcher era, a seemingly unbridgeable gulf has opened up between those doing the research in privately run laboratories and the ministries that should be using it. “The problem with the public sector,” said one microbiologist I spoke to, “is that it outsourced the intellectual resource to the private sector, and now it won’t talk to it.”

This is all the more worrying when it comes to the new generation of zoonotic diseases that are bound to follow avian flu. Because new viruses are likely to mutate, and may one day spread from animals to humans, there should be first-class communication between veterinary and human medicine. Yet here, too, there is a vacuum. Britain has no strong tradition of co-operation between the vets and the physicians. The scientific innovations that should be driving medical policy seem to collide with the inertia of those who are delivering it. There is good research being done, but we no longer seem to have the nerve to make use of it.

What needs to happen is that this vital work should be removed from under the dead hand of Defra and handed to an independent advisory body that could draw together the necessary scientific expertise from all sources and then come up with objective advice, free of government constraints. Perhaps the Royal Societies, north and south of the border, with their long traditions of independence, could act as the umbrella body. Something needs to be done if we are not to stumble into another pandemic disaster. Next time we may be dealing with more than just a dead swan.