Calls for a permanent ban on the bird trade have increased following Margaret Beckett's announcement of a further series of blunders made by DEFRA both during events that transpired at the infected facility and their subsequent investigation. The Animal Protection Agency (APA), a national organisation campaigning against the trade in wild animals for pets, has claimed that the new revelations serve no other purpose than to show that the whole system of quarantine is inherently flawed.
Previously misfiled records now show that 'approximately' 2000 birds occupied the Essex facility between 15 July and 18 August 2005, which was thought to have been empty during the period from March to September. But campaigners and scientists are baffled as to why exact bird counts are unavailable. There also appears to be no accurate record of the number of birds, from the batch of 2000, that died during quarantine the figure being given as 'approximately 10%' about 200 birds.
A sample of only five dead birds were taken away for analysis whereas a more representative sample under epidemiological principles would have been at least 40 birds. DEFRA also claims that the sentinel chickens tested negative but this is irrelevant given that the sentinel chickens did not die when birds later found to be infected with H5N1 did. DEFRA maintains that mesias, which are softbill parrots and not finches as also mis-described in DEFRA's original report, are the likeliest source of infection but scientists claim that there is still no way of knowing this for certain.
Says Clifford Warwick, Director of the BioVeterinary Group:
"DEFRA's latest 'revision' of its 'facts' suggests to me an institutional flaw in both quarantine accountability and DEFRA's management of the system. Two-thousand birds are a lot to 'misfile', and even this figure is uncertain. Many epidemiologists will also be concerned to note that only five birds were reportedly tested for important disease. We also know that the 'sentinel' birds - used as an early disease-warning mechanism - are unreliable. DEFRA's revelation will do little to raise public or scientific confidence."
Says Elaine Toland, Director of APA:
"DEFRA, it seems, has itself become a casualty of bird flu as it continually struggles to stave off accusations of bungling incompetence - its findings are vague and its claims are painfully implausible. But not even a well-managed system of quarantine would protect us against the myriad of viruses many of them transmissible to humans - imported into the UK through the wildlife trade."
Issued: 2 December 2005