Bird flu epidemic 'could be like BSE'

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They described reassurances from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as "bunk" and accused it of "sitting on its hands".

Last night Professor Hugh Pennington, president of the Society for General Microbiology, who has warned that up to two million Britons could be killed by the disease, said that Defra was repeating the disastrous policies of its predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, over BSE because "it did not want to tread on anybody's toes from the point of view of agribusiness".

The professor emeritus of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, and one of Britain's top authorities on the disease, added: "They seem to be under the cosh from the business, rather than the human health, end of things." He called Defra's claims that infected birds were unlikely to migrate to Britain "bunk", and said that it reminded him of the false assurances that BSE could not pass to humans.

Professor John Oxford of Queen Mary, University of London, one of the world's leading flu experts, said that Defra's attitude gave him "a whiff of BSE". He added that while health ministers, after a slow start, were now working hard on bird flu, Defra seemed to be "sitting on its hands and keeping its fingers crossed, which is not what one would want to see at the present moment". He called for urgent action to keep poultry away from wild birds.

Defra replied that it was being "vigilant", and "acting swiftly" but that the risk from bird flu was "low". It added that it "monitors for outbreaks of the disease on a daily basis and if a new notification is made from a new area, a risk assessment is carried out".