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Bird flu at quarantine centre was discovered only by chance

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Published: 21 November 2005

Ministers tried to cover up the true scale of the fiasco surrounding an outbreak of deadly bird flu at a private quarantine facility in Essex.

An investigation by The Independent has found that the discovery of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza at the centre occurred by chance. Senior officials and ministers had implied the find was madebecause of scientific thoroughness.

It has emerged that measures designed to alert veterinary authorities to the presence of avian flu failed and it was only the fortuitous death of a parrot from other causes that led to the truth being uncovered.

Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Welfare minister, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and Debby Reynolds, the chief veterinary officer, have all failed to explain how close Britain came to having bird flu within its borders without officials knowing it.

Healthy "sentinel" chickens kept in the quarantine facility and breathing the same air as the exotic cage birds were supposed to contract avian flu if any of the imported stock were infected. However, the sentinel hens remained uninfected.

Instead, it was the coincidental death of a South American parrot that alerted the authorities to the presence of the H5N1 virus in a separate consignment of mesia finches from Taiwan.

The Independent has established that more than 50 finches had already died in the facility more than seven days before the keepers or veterinary inspectors decided to test a single dead mesia for bird flu.

The only reason for testing the Taiwanese finch was because the more valuable blue-headed pionus parrot from Surinam had died on the same day as the mesia, 14 October, more than a week after the 52 other mesias had died.

Instead of suspecting avian flu, the vets and bird keepers attributed the deaths of the 52 mesia finches to poor nutrition or diet, according to an official report into the outbreak.

If the parrot had not died on the same day as the 53rd mesia, it is almost certain that this last finch to die of bird flu would never have been tested and Britain would never have known about the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus.

"It now seems clear that the discovery of birds infected with avian flu was more a matter of luck than judgement," said Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the environment.

"Had it not been for the coincidence of a dead parrot, infected birds may well have been allowed out of quarantine. The quarantine system, far from being watertight, now looks more like a collander. Ministers have some serious explaining to do," Mr Baker said.

Sparce details of the chance events that led to the detection of the H5N1 at the Essex facility are documented in the official report published last week by a body of experts called the National Emergency Epidemiology Group.

When Mrs Beckett, Mr Bradshaw and Dr Reynolds launched the report last Tuesday, they implied that it was good news that the "sentinel" chickens had not become infected.

Dr Reynolds said that the case showed that Britain's quarantine system worked. "This report contains significant epidemiological findings and helps to further our understanding of highly pathogenic avian influenza. In particular, the apparent lack of transmission of H5N1 between species in the facility will be of interest to the international community."

A Defra spokesman said that even though the sentinel hens had failed to warn of the presence of H5N1, the quarantine regime would still have caught the virus. "Even if the parrot had not died, the mesias had and would have been tested," he said.