Scientific American has reported that a formal investigation is underway concerning nine scientists and one public official concerning an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa in and around Puglia, Italy. The outbreak (first noted in 2013) has affected olive trees in the area, and efforts to contain the outbreak have prompted both protests from activists and investigation from the European Union.
The case involving Italian seismologists and the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 was long and complicated, so I already expected that the investigation into these scientists – suspected of introducing and/or allowing the spread of the Xylella strain – would be a challenge to follow. Now that the EU is involved, I think a long, complicated legal case is assured.
The scientists are under suspicion for introducing the strain because of a 2010 training course where a strain of Xylella was used. That claim is being refuted because the strain considered the cause of the outbreak is distinct from the Californian variety used at the course.
Some of the criticism is prompted in part due to the measures the scientists are calling for in order to combat the strain. Several parties object to the destruction of trees (many of them quite old) and the use of pesticides in the area. The prosecutors in the case have called for a halt to such measures when they announced the formal investigation. Aside from placing the scientists under suspicion of causing the outbreak (either intentionally or through neglect), it has been contended that the actual cause of the outbreak is not the Xylella, but a fungus.
The European Union is involved because of concerns over the possible spread of the pathogen to other countries. As part of EU rules, Italy is obligated to develop and implement a containment plan. However, some of the measures have been blocked by the courts, and it is possible that the contentions against the scientists are another means of fighting against the EU rules.
I am concerned that the length of any Italian court proceeding may make it difficult to effectively address the outbreak. With the final appeals of the L’Aquila case stretching things out to at least six years following the 2009 quake, there may be at least another three years before the Italian courts adjudicate the matter (regardless of how the EU enforcement and judicial mechanisms may act). Perhaps the outbreak can be contained in time, but it’s tough to see this case as helping.