UK fails to stockpile flu vaccine for birds

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The Government has failed to order a stockpile of the vaccine that could inoculate Britain's poultry against an outbreak of the lethal H5N1 flu virus, The Independent can reveal.

Agriculture ministers from the 25 EU countries met yesterday to discuss French and Dutch proposals for the mass vaccination of millions of birds across Europe following the spread of avian flu to France.

Poultry farmers in France and the Netherlands are waiting to begin the process of vaccinating 30 million ducks and 300 million chickens against H5N1.

However, some EU countries believe vaccination will be too costly and too complex to administer, and argue that they could be counterproductive because they can mask infection.

But as British poultry farmers were told to prepare to bring their flocks indoors, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admitted that, unlike other EU countries such as the Netherlands and Spain, it does not have an avian flu vaccine "bank" to allow an inoculation programme.

Britain has 20-25 million free-range birds vulnerable to H5N1 infection, one of the highest densities in Europe. However, officials said last night that a vaccination campaign of Britain's entire poultry flock, about 200 million birds, would never be contemplated and stockpiling vaccine was therefore unnecessary.

A Defra spokesman said: "A pre-emptive vaccination programme does not form part of our plan. It would only serve to drive the disease underground by making it difficult to detect a genuine outbreak. We have a strategy in place, which is to identify the source of any outbreak and take measures to eradicate it."

Ministers have left open the option of a smaller vaccination programme which would be used as a last resort to "ring fence" any outbreak by slowing down the spread of the virus.

However, serious questions remain as to whether the Government would be able carry out such a measure. Intervet, a Netherlands-based pharmaceuticals company which is the main manufacturer of avian flu vaccine in the EU, said it has not received any orders from Defra.

The company said that even if an order were made this week for the doses necessary to vaccinate Britain's free-range stocks, it would take up to two months to deliver. As a result, Britain is likely to have to ask its EU partners for supplies if the need emerges.

One British poultry industry source said: "The Government has been dragging its heels on this. Vaccination does not appear to have even been considered as part of the bird flu strategy before January. If serious amounts of vaccination are required, then we face not being able to do it."

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, said the Government remained to be convinced of the case for vaccination. Speaking in Brussels, she said: "Everyone recognises that vaccination has problems as well as benefits. Vaccination does not necessarily stop the disease in its tracks."

The position received broad backing from vets, who said mass vaccination could be counterproductive but said sufficient stocks for small-scale inoculations would be prudent. Stephen Lister, a spokesman for the British Veterinary Association, said: "Each country has different requirements with regard to vaccination."

Poultry farmers are on alert to bring flocks indoors, or under netted enclosures for organic birds, in the event of a confirmed outbreak.

Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Health minister, said: "We would only order the housing of birds if there was an outbreak in this country."

Tests for H5N1 in nine dead swans found across Britain over the weekend have so far proved negative.