Blog Archives: 2020

When media training goes wrong…

2nd April 2020

Image courtesy of BBC

I for one was buoyed by the daily COVID-19 press conferences when they started.

After months of refusing to play with the media, here was a newly candid and communicative PM, flanked by experts, projecting leadership, accountability and honesty. He said the right things and deferred when appropriate to those who know better. He knew we were worried about virus testing, the NHS, business survivability, the self-employed and the impact on vulnerable people on their own – and had plans to deal with all.

The behavioural scientists were all over it like a rash too. Key messages about staying at home, protecting the NHS, saving lives, restated daily in different formats and colours. Timings were orchestrated for optimum response from the population, creating new social norms. I felt safe and looked after in this brave new world of open communication.

But the reality is no longer delivering on the promise, and the warning signs are being ignored.

As the press conferences have worn on, the format has worn out. In the daily dance of statistics,  manufactured empathy for the families of those who have died, and now graphs (please, someone ditch that logarithmic scale, it just underplays the issue), the press questions are becoming boringly repetitive. Why? They are not being answered. And when people stop answering questions, that becomes a bigger story than what is being said.

Anyone who has watched that ever-painful 1997 Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, asking “Did you threaten to overrule him?” 12 times, knows what happens when you don’t answer a question. It gets asked again. And again. And again.

Not answering is not a win for the interviewee. At best it generates a feeling of discomfort among observers, like a persistent itch in the back of the skull. At worst it swivels a spotlight to the area you want to avoid. A big flashing neon sign which fires the starting gun for a relentless media to double their efforts to uncover whatever dark and dirty secret lies beneath.

I blame poor media training for turning the nightly press briefing into this stilted, cringeworthy affair. Training so focused on avoiding a slip or undeliverable promise that all authenticity is driven out. What is so bad about the numbers of NHS staff off work that it can’t be shared? Why is there no answer for who leads Government if the key players are struck down? What are the real reasons for lack of testing when reagent companies offering product are being unearthed by media on a daily basis? Even the marvellous deputy CMO Jenny Harries, who showed early glimpses of authenticity, seems to have been reined in by the machine from answering questions candidly.

So now I suspect many of us sit nightly, toes curling, willing the right words into the mouths of the politicians and scientists to satisfy the questions. I get that this may mean sharing the pain of what they are dealing with, but that’s OK. This is a horrendous, wicked problem that loses whatever way you turn. I don’t doubt for a second that Government is doing its best to save lives and save businesses, making decisions we don’t always understand based on a raft of information we have no access to.

But one thing you can guarantee in life alongside death and taxes is if you leave a void, someone will fill it with misinformation you don’t want out there. It time for Government to step up and fill that gap – not the armchair epidemiologists or conspiracy theorists out in daily-increasing numbers on social media, picking apart the carcass of their strategy.

The convenient exploitation of COVID-19

19th March 2020

It’s devastating, but maybe unsurprising, that COVID-19 is being exploited by animal campaigners. While some may argue the end justifies the means, disinformation serves no one.

Leading the charge with a baffling sense of impunity is PETA, with others paraphrasing its statements in a series of copycat articles. While PETA stops short of lying outright, it weaves together enough facts from different contexts to present a completely distorted but disturbingly believable case.

Let’s pick apart PETA’s claims:

PETA: What’s the link between meat and the coronavirus? PETA has long warned about the health risks associated with eating meat. After all, raising animals for food in filthy conditions is a breeding ground for diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

The facts: The link is that COVID-19, as this coronavirus is called, has been traced back to a ‘wet’ market for meat in China and associated with the sale of live wild bats for human consumption. It categorically has not been linked in any way to farmed meat. But let’s pick up the thread on transmission of disease from ‘raising’ animals a bit later.

PETA: Can I get COVID-19 from eating meat? The World Health Organization says, “To protect yourself, such as when visiting live animal markets, avoid direct contact with animals and surfaces in contact with animals. Ensure good food safety practices at all times. Handle raw meat, milk or animal organs with care to avoid contamination of uncooked foods and avoid consuming raw or undercooked animal products.

The facts: This is standard good practice when in contact with any animal, whether pet, farm or wild. It’s why we worm our dogs and make sure our meat is properly cooked. There is no evidence whatsoever that COVID-19 is being transmitted from any other animals than the bats originally identified. The World Health organisation confirms that animal sources of COVID-19 have not been confirmed.

PETA: Is it safe to eat meat during the coronavirus outbreak? You should stay away from animal-derived foods at all times for many reasons!

The facts: None of the ‘reasons’ PETA presents have anything to do with COVID-19…

PETA: Is the meat industry responsible for the coronavirus? We can’t ignore the link between meat and outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19. Humans’ insatiable demand for meat, eggs, and dairy means that huge numbers of animals are reared in intensive confinement in giant, filthy warehouses.

The facts: No evidence offered that COVID-19 has any link to farmed animals. But we will pick up PETA’s assertions about farming standards shortly…

PETA: Where did the coronavirus come from? Public health experts believe COVID-19 originated at a “wet market” in China, where vendors sell both live and dead animals for human consumption. COVID-19 is similar to the outbreaks of SARS and MERS: All three spread from animals to humans.

The facts: Correct, they are what we called zoonoses, where disease spreads from animals to humans. But COVID-19 has come from a wild (i.e. unfarmed) animal; SARS, which has seen 774 deaths globally since its peak in 2002-4, is also believed to have come from bats; and MERS, thought to have derived from dromedary camels used for transport in the Middle East, has caused 858 deaths in total.

PETA: Have other diseases come from eating meat? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting people began as diseases in animals.” Swine flu—which is linked to pigs—has killed thousands of people worldwide. And bird flu (or avian flu) is a disease that can spread easily on a crowded chicken farm. There are at least 144 different strains of bird flu. The H5N1 variety kills the most birds and is deadly to humans, killing about 60% of those who catch it.

The facts: Here we roll up our sleeves to deal with the subject of zoonoses. What PETA conveniently doesn’t explain is that the vast numbers of illnesses or deaths from zoonoses come from pets, wild animals, or via pests. Of those than come from farm animals, most are in developing countries where animals live closely with their keepers or where animal health and food safety standards are radically different from those demanded in developed countries.

A 2010 paper from Lembo et al shows the death toll of the key zoonoses annually. The big killers are rabies (hosted by a number of animals but mainly dogs), leishmaniasis (transmitted by sand flies, but hosted by mainly from dogs but also hares or rabbits, goats, rodents and cats), and HAT or trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) which is endemic in Africa. Animals can host the human pathogen parasites for Trypanosomiasis, and both wild and domestic animals, including cattle, can be an important reservoir.

Source: Lembo et al, 2010

After the above paper was written, swine flu – or H1N1pdm09 – emerged and was estimated to be responsible for over half a million deaths in 2009 (pdm09 denoting its pandemic status in that year).

However, the history of this virus in interesting. The 1918 deadly influenza pandemic was also caused by H1N1, and infected approximately 500 million people around the world and caused the death of roughly 50-100 million people. According to a review of the disease from Jilani et al in 2019, the H1N1 variant of swine flu is the progeny of the strain that caused the 1918 flu pandemic. Although persisting in pigs, the descendant variants of the 1918 virus have also been known to infect humans, contributing to the yearly seasonal epidemics of influenza. Direct transmission of the virus from pigs to humans is a rare occurrence, with only 12 documented cases in the United States since 2005. The 2009 H1N1 virus was not zoonotic swine flu because it was not transferred from pigs to humans. Instead, it spread through airborne droplets from human to human, and potentially, through human contact with inanimate objects contaminated with the virus and transferred to the eyes or nose.

Finally, it’s very hard for humans to catch H5N1 avian flu, and the risk is mainly to those who directly handle birds. In total, there have been 455 deaths globally from H5N1 since 2003.

In summary, of course we need to be careful around animals. This has always been the case and always will be. Animals harbour a range of pathogens that can infect humans, and we also harbour some than can infect animals because zoonoses work both ways. The main ones connected with food – that we take steps to control by handling and cooking food properly, and observing standard hygiene rules – are campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli.

PETA: What is the meat industry’s role in the emergence of superbugs? In addition to serving as breeding grounds for viruses, the crowded, filthy conditions on farms allow bacteria to spread quickly. Farmers feed animals on today’s farms a regimen of antibiotics to try to minimize sickness or to promote unnatural growth. Did you know that animals on farms consume more antibiotics every year than humans do? Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics as a result of overuse. This contributes to the emergence of “superbugs”—new, aggressive pathogens. Now, the drugs used to keep animals on farms alive are making humans sick.

Rolling our sleeves even higher…

The facts: Here PETA makes the leap from its non-existent case linking farming and COVID-19, to antibiotic resistance or AMR (antimicrobial resistance). So let’s deal with that now. In summary, use of antibiotics in farm animals is one of the factors we need to pay attention to in the growing global challenge of AMR, but it is not the main cause of antibiotic-resistant illnesses in humans, a fact with which both the UK health authorities (UK 5 Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013) and the European Medicines Agency (CVMP Strategy on Antimicrobials 2016-2020) agree.

To start with, any crowded conditions increase disease risk. Just look at schools, planes and office environments where people can gather to swap germs. The move to implement social distancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak illustrates this. But it is unacceptable for antibiotics to be used routinely to prevent disease breaking out when animals are kept like this.

Globally, it has estimated that 70-80% of antibiotics are used to treat animals, much of which is for growth promotion but with a likely additional effect of suppressing disease. However, use of antibiotics for growth promotion has been banned in Europe since 2006 and is now, thankfully, being phased out in many other countries as well as sales becoming increasingly controlled by prescription, as they have been for decades in the UK. Global use should start to fall thanks to these interventions, but bear in mind the unintended consequences; high use in developing countries has sometimes been instrumental in containing animal disease that would otherwise devastate the livelihoods of millions of people.

So what role does antibiotic use in livestock play in antibiotic-resistant disease in humans?

1/ Bacteria develop resistance naturally when exposed to threat, so any use of antibiotic risks the development of resistance. The more antibiotics are used, the more resistance can develop. The fact that farming globally uses most of the antibiotics means it probably is generating significant amounts of resistance genes in the environment around us, alongside other sources such as human sewage and waste. Note – and this is a very important point – the development of resistance genes is not the same as the development of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. But it is very important we control this in the environment as such a reservoir of resistance genes poses a serious long term health threat to us all.

2/ Direct transmission of resistant bacteria from farm animals to humans can happen, but the genes need to be present in the animal, transfer to the human via food or contact and overcoming standard hygiene and food safety measures along the way, then actually colonise the human (not that easy) to cause disease.

3/ When this transmission does happen, it’s mainly in foodborne pathogens, such as campylobacter and salmonella, which more easily colonise people. Even so, the links between resistance in the bacteria in the animals and resistance in the human infection are not clear. The infection needs to be resistant to multiple antibiotics to become a drug-resistant infection. Don’t get us wrong, developing salmonellosis or campylobacteriosis is unpleasant at any time, whether the infecting bacteria are resistant to treatment or not, which is why standard hygiene and food preparation practices are important as they virtually eliminate risk. Most people who develop an infection from foodborne pathogens recover without needing antibiotic treatment, but some do need treatment and specific drugs that vulnerable groups rely on have been radically cut back or stopped in veterinary medicine to help preserve their efficacy. It’s also worth noting that in the UK, efforts by the Food Standards Agency and retailers to work with the poultry meat industry to reduce the reservoir of campylobacter bacteria on chickens in farms have been extremely successful, resulting in healthier birds and lower risk of bacterial contamination. This has helped towards the 80% fall in antibiotic use achieved by the poultry meat sector in recent years.

4/ Other infections that can occur include Livestock-Associated MRSA, which is not the same as MRSA you acquire in hospitals or the community. LA-MRSA can exist on some farm workers, for example in their noses, but rarely colonises them or causes illness.

5/ E. coli is the final pathogen we will mention that affects humans, with some claiming that antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections are coming from farm animals or their products. While the discovery of plasmids that confer resistance explains some of this, there is growing evidence that the links are not strong.

The UK has halved farm animal antibiotic sales in the past 5 years and has among the lowest sales in Europe. Yes there’s more to do – we need to get better at management, biosecurity and welfare. But the whole point of farm animal production and the extensive regulatory framework that covers it in developed countries, including strict health rules and withdrawal periods after veterinary treatment as well as surveillance and testing, is it is SAFE.

So in summary, the COVID-19 crisis has led to some small grains of truth being opportunistically and very irresponsibly woven into a narrative by PETA and other animal rights campaigners. They may see the crisis as a chance to woo more supporters, but it’s interesting to see that the food products moving most swiftly off the shelves in panic buying are meat and milk, suggesting people still find comfort and faith in our most basic and essential of nutritious food products.…