Welcome to Thursday’s Early Edition from i.
In a time of serious political and economic tumult, you could easily be forgiven for missing the other headlines. The ones reporting on the hundreds of sea lions turning up dead on the shorelines of the Caspian Sea, and then Peru, where thousands of sea birds have also been infected and killed by H5N1, the highly infectious form of bird flu. Last month, an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died after being infected by a strain of avian flu– the first human infection of the virus in the country in nine years, setting off big alarm bells for global health authorities. Last year the largest outbreak of avian flu in the UK saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of hens in the UK and millions worldwide, an event that also pushed up the price of eggs. It sounds catastrophic. But how worried should we be? This week i‘s Jane Merrick was granted access to the UK’s top security facility fighting the battle against bird flu. We’ll take a look at what scientists told her, after the headlines.
Today’s news, and why it matters
Isabel Oakeshott has rejected claims she broke a legal agreement with Matt Hancock by leaking his “stolen” messages, claiming she was acting in the public interest. “These WhatsApp messages provide far quicker information about what was really being said and done by those in charge of the response. Their release is overwhelmingly in the public interest,” she told i. But sources close to Mr Hancock attacked her actions, saying: “It’s telling that someone who works for NewsUK did not go to The Times or The Sun with this story, but to The Telegraph. It clearly shows she has an agenda.”
Boris Johnson is still considering weighing in to denounce Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland but is believed to be waiting for the DUP’s verdict before he makes his mind up. A source close to Mr Johnson said that he “continues to study the deal”. One MP told i: “He’s holding fire on the DUP decision and that of the ERG’s legal analysis.”
Five Chinese state-linked firms have been blocked from playing a role in a UK Government-led scheme to help rebuild Ukraine because of tensions between the US and China. Experts told i it was a “highly unusual arrangement” and is atypical of Government contracts to see named companies the US believes raise security concerns excluded.
Remains of a baby have been found in a wooded area close to where Constance Marten and Mark Gordon were arrested, police have confirmed, after a two-day search for the couple’s missing infant.
Rebel Tories have warned ministers must rethink legislation that risks scrapping clean water regulations put in place to protect swimmers and wildlife from sewage amid growing public anger over the issue. It comes as campaigners have insisted that the Government would be “playing with fire” if it decided to repeal safe water laws under Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit bonfire of Brussels red tape.
A mother and father have been sentenced to a combined 13 and a half years for killing their 16-year-old disabled daughter, who weighed over 22st at the time of her death. Kaylea Titford, who suffered from spina bifida, was found dead at her home in Newtown, Powys, in October 2020 in conditions described as “unfit for any animal”.
How worried should we be about bird flu?
What has been happening? Avian flu has been around for decades, but since last year, some 200 million birds have died either from the virus or due to culls, in what has been the worst-ever global outbreak of the virus. Scientists are now also concerned about the possibility of transmission between mammals. Last month, at least 55,000 birds – mostly sea birds such as pelicans, were found dead from the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Peru. Some 716 sea lions were also reported dead. That came just weeks after a “mass mortality event” in the Caspian Sea, where more than 700 seals were found dead near to where avian flu had been found in wild birds. It’s not yet known whether the sea lions in both cases died from being infected directly from birds, or whether there was mammalian transmission. Scientists from Dagestan State University have identified bird flu in tissue from the dead seals, but because the area falls under Russian jurisdiction getting data has been difficult. But it’s a situation being closely monitored by UK health authorities. In Britain, the virus has been identified in a handful of otters and seals, but none of the UK outbreaks have suggested transmission between mammals. However in Spain, there have been recorded incidents of the virus transmitting between mink bred in close quarters in captivity. The girl’s death in Cambodia is said to involved a slightly different strain, but is still of concern.
Is the spillover from animals to humans likely? There’s currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from human to human. Professor Ian Brown, who is leading the UK’s fight against bird flu, told i there is no scientific evidence of transmission between wild mammals but his team have been ramping up surveillance and monitoring. “If it establishes in mammals and goes from one mammal to another, then we have got to be concerned, no question. That’s why it’s important to do the monitoring, to get the evidence and understand what changes are happening. [But] the information exchange for flu is well developed. We’re not like in a Covid situation where the linkage between any animal reservoir and public health was not in place, flu has been an established system,” he told Jane Merrick. He points out that although the cluster of human cases in Cambodia involves a slightly different strain it has nevertheless caused “concern” for the World Health Organization. “To put it in context, we’ve had five human cases with this current H5N1, and they’ve all been mild, globally,” he said.
What are British authorities doing? As i‘s Jane Merrick reports, the UK government is considering vaccinating the country’s poultry flock against bird flu, in what would be a major change of policy. A new technical group of experts and senior officials from the UK Health Security Agency, APHA, and academia is reviewing the risk from bird flu to humans on a weekly basis, i can also reveal. The threat is currently at Level 3 – meaning there are changes in the virus genome that could lead to mammal-to-mammal transmission. Scientists are wary of vaccinating poultry because it can still allow the virus to transmit within flocks of healthy birds, but European countries are expected to make a decision on vaccinations by the end of this month. You can read the full report here. Last week the UKHSA revealed it was considering introducing lateral flow tests to detect bird flu in humans in case there is a spillover of the virus into people, and is running scenarios for a potential new pandemic. According to Professor Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, the “main protection for humans would be a vaccine,” which is being tested by researchers in a number of countries. Prof Brown also told i the public could help by reporting incidents of dead birds and wild mammals to the Defra helpline or on its website, and not to touch any dead wildlife.
Around the world
China has sought to show the world there is an alternative to the US-led global order as it launched a “diplomatic game of narratives” with its more active approach to the war in Ukraine. Experts say Beijing is moving to curry favour with countries in the global south that have mostly stayed out of Europe’s war, and particularly with autocratic states in its latest “charm offensive”.
Hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran have reportedly been affected by “serial poisonings” across the country in recent months. There have been concerns the poisonings could be a deliberate attempts at targeting and shutting down girls’ schools.
A Bolivian man says he drank rainwater collected in his shoes and ate worms in order to survive for 31 days in the Amazon jungle after he got separated from his four friends while out hunting. “I ate worms, I ate insects, you wouldn’t believe all I had to do to survive all this time,” Jhonattan Acosta, said.
Cambridge’s Trinity College is returning four spears taken during Captain James Cook’s landing at Sydney’s Botany Bay to the local Indigenous community – more than 250 years after they were taken. “I think for us it’s a momentous occasion that where Australia’s history began, in 1770 on the shores of Botany Bay at Kurnell, the spears that were undoubtedly taken without permission are returned to the rightful people,” Dharawal man Ray Ingrey said.
Watch out for…
Manchester Arena Inquiry chairman Sir John Saunders, who will release his findings today on whether the terror attack could have been prevented by MI5 and counter-terrorism police.
Thoughts for the day
Isabel Oakeshott’s betrayal of Matt Hancock is the final nail in the coffin for trust in the media, argues Ian Dunt.
Social media is so harmful to children, it will one day be compared to alcohol and tobacco, says Esther Walker.
George Osborne’s WhatsApp messages to Matt Hancock are a lesson in the dark art of passive aggression. The understatement, the disdain, the powerplay – it’s almost enough to make you forgive him for that whole austerity thing, writes Rebecca Reid.
The Witch Trials of JK Rowling makes ‘sensible’ points. It’s what it doesn’t say that’s the problem. This podcast seemingly makes itself out to be balanced and rational, but intentionally does not present both sides of the story, writes Emily Bootle.
The Big Read
Stop blindly believing or dismissing the Covid lab-leak theory – focus on the evidence. New reports from US government agencies do not provide any data – so should not have much influence on our thinking, writes Stuart Ritchie.
How Roma revived ’emotional, not crazy’ Jose Mourinho with an HR guru and smart signings. The Roma boss was handed his third red card of the season on Tuesday night, but this isn’t just the same old Mourinho – a new approach at Roma has him feeling the love once again, reports Mark Douglas.
Something to brighten your day
Scientific volunteers working in the dry lake of a volcano crater on Easter Island have uncovered a moai – an iconic monolithic statue – presenting a new mystery to the famous island. “This moai has great potential for scientific and natural studies – it’s a really unique discovery as it’s the first time that that a moai has been discovered inside a laguna [lake] in a Rano Raraku crater,” the Indigenous community that administers the site said. “The interesting thing is that, for at least the last 200 or 300 years, the laguna was three metres deep, meaning no human being could have left the moai there in that time.”