Investigations have centred on a possible leak of viral material from a research facility run by Merial.
As pressure mounts on the company, it is using retained agency Blue Rubicon to fight its corner. It has also drafted in freelance consultant Bert Burns, previously a senior PRO at parent company Merck. Burns and the agency both report to Merial head of comms Philip Connolly.
Merial has denied allegations that the virus was leaked from its Pirbright premises via waste water. It has issued a statement saying waste water was processed at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), which is housed on the same site.
The IAH has turned to Matt Goode, head of media at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
At the same time, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has put a crisis comms plan into action. Defra has released mailshots and is contacting farmers directly via text messages. The comms operation is being overseen by acting director of comms Steven Morris – previously head of the PM’s strategy unit at Number 10 – and head of news Rachel Grant.
‘We have learned lessons from the past and are communicating directly with people on the ground in the affected area,’ Grant said.
Legal sources said all communications would be rigorously checked by legal teams and that straight denials or accusations from either side were unlikely.
The Health and Safety Executive confirmed that its PROs took legal advice before releasing a statement saying there is a ‘strong probability’ the leak originated at the Pirbright site.