Scientists still searching for source of Britain's first deadly bird flu case

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The Independent Online

Tissue samples from two consignments of birds destined for the pet trade are being tested for the lethal H5N1 strain of flu virus by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey. In Asia, the same strain has infected millions of birds and more than 120 people, of which 61 have died .

A parrot imported from Surinam has already tested positive for the virus but scientists believe that it almost certainly caught the infection from another group of birds imported from Taiwan and kept in the same quarantine facility.

The former Dutch colony of Surinam in South America has not reported any cases of H5N1, unlike Taiwan, where thousands of domestic poultry have had to be culled because of outbreaks. Both sets of birds shared the same "air space" at the Essex quarantine facility and it is likely that the virus spread from one group to the other, according to Debby Reynolds, the Government's chief veterinary officer. Dr Reynolds said that further investigations are taking place to work out what happened in the Essex quarantine facility, which has not been named.

"We are closer to reaching a conclusion on this investigation. Our working hypothesis is that any infection in the birds from Surinam is likely to have arisen in the quarantine system," Dr Reynolds said.

"Some of the birds from Taiwan did die and are now being tested. There are quite a number of unanswered questions," she said.

Dr Reynolds said that whether this was a good way to run things did need to be explored further and there were questions which needed to be addressed in the general sense.

"Ministers have called for the European Commission to look at a Europe-wide ban on the importation of wild birds," she added.

A temporary ban on the importation of parrots, budgerigars and other pet birds is likely to be agreed by scientific experts today, after the move won the formal backing of the European Commission. Britain, which holds the EU presidency, called for the embargo on imported exotic birds on Sunday. The commission will present its proposals to veterinary experts from the EU's 25 member states today.

Diplomats said that none of the member states raised objections at yesterday's meeting of European agriculture ministers, suggesting that the measure is likely to go through. The EU imports about 1.8 million birds each year as pets.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that an immediate ban on the trade in wild birds would not lead to a rise in smuggling, as some commentators have suggested.

Julian Hughes, head of species conservation at the RSPB, said: "We have serious conservation concerns about the continued legal trade in birds from the wild and there is no evidence that a ban on bird imports would drive the trade underground."

Meanwhile, Croatia has banned the export of live birds and feathers after bird flu was detected in two of 13 swans found dead near a national park, where six other swans from the same flock tested positive last week.

The two Croatian swans tested positive for an H5 type of bird flu, and further tests were under way to determine whether H5N1 was present. Croatia's self-imposed export ban is expected to be turned into a formal EU-wide measure. Another region in Russia has confirmed an outbreak of H5N1 in Tambov, 250 miles south-east of Moscow.

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