Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine director Hsu Tien-lai (許天來) resigned yesterday amid allegations he covered up a bird flu outbreak, a day after authorities announced they had culled thousands of chickens.
The Council of Agriculture yesterday said Hsu’s resignation had been approved and that his case has been sent to the Control Yuan for investigation.
The council held an emergency press conference on Saturday to announce that specialists had confirmed strains of the H5N2 avian influenza virus in Changhua County and Greater Tainan were highly pathogenic and that 57,500 chickens had been culled to prevent the virus from spreading.
Hsu said the chickens from the reported sites had all been culled and sanitizing measures had been completed within a 3km perimeter around the sites.
Yang Wen-yuan (楊文淵), a division director at the bureau, said in addition to the two cases in Changhua and Tainan, another case of H5N2 had been reported in Changhua as well as two in Nantou County, but so far on-site investigations had not revealed signs of exceptional clinical symptoms.
Council of Agriculture Deputy Minister Wang Cheng-teng (王政騰) reiterated that it has been scientifically proven that H5N2 only inflects birds and does not affect humans.
Wang said export losses for egg products was estimated at between NT$500 million (US$17 million) and NT$700 million.
A new director of the bureau has not yet been chosen, Wang said.
According to Kevin H. J. Lee (李惠仁), a freelance journalist who spent more than six years investigating avian influenza in Taiwan and directed a documentary entitled A Secret That Can’t Be Exposed (不能戳的秘密), the council concealed the truth about the virus.
Lee began his investigation after a mass outbreak of avian influenza in Changhua in 2004, filming in chicken coops across the country and even dissecting dead chickens to procure tissue samples for testing.
On Dec. 25 last year, Lee sent a dead chicken that he suspected was infected with H5N2 avian influenza, along with the location of the farm in Changhua County, to the bureau, but the bureau responded by saying that the virus was not highly pathogenic.
“In the process of my investigation, I discovered the situation is very different to what the council tells us. I discovered that the council has lied about the whole thing since 2004,” Lee said.
“After analyzing the sampled genes, it was concluded that the avian influenza found is an endemic avian influenza viral strain,” Hsu said on Saturday. “The first case was found in Changhua on Dec. 27 and it has been dealt with this morning. It was only yesterday [Friday] that the case was determined to be highly pathogenic.”
Responding to questions from the media on why the bureau initially denied Lee’s claim, but now says the virus is highly pathogenic, Hsu said clinical and laboratory results lead to different conclusions — it had a low clinical death rate, but genetic testing showed signs that it was highly pathogenic according to the intravenous pathogenicity index method described by the World Organization for Animal Health.
Huang Li-min (黃立民), a pediatrician at National Taiwan University Hospital, said the virus might have existed for quite some time in Taiwan and that if people had frequent contact with the birds, there was a possibility of infection.