A vicious pathogen that is destroying historic olive groves in Puglia, southern Italy, is moving north and threatens to reach the rest of Europe. Yet Italian authorities last year failed to track the infection’s spread, and didn’t follow containment plans agreed upon with the European Commission.

Scientists in the region aren’t surprised by the criticism: Their efforts to stop the infection have been repeatedly hampered over the past four years, since they first suspected that the disease was caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.

“The situation is ridiculous,” says plant pathologist Giovanni Martelli at the University of Bari in northern Puglia. “The authorities have always moved too slowly, when quick action was needed.”

The pathogen — for which there is no cure — had never been seen in Europe before it was spotted in Puglia in 2013. It probably arrived from the Americas, where it is endemic. Researchers established that it was causing olive quick decline syndrome (OQDS) in Puglia, but protesters challenged their findings. In 2015 a local public prosecutor, prompted by angry environmentalists protesting about the felling of ancient olive trees, opened a criminal investigation into whether researchers had actually caused the infection themselves.

The commission’s audit, published on 31 May, includes a litany of failures by Italian authorities. It says that systematic monitoring of the infection began too late, and that there were ‘excessive delays’ in uprooting some infected trees.  The report charges that national and regional authorities have disbursed little more than half of the €10 million (US$11.2 million) budgeted for containment measures. Data obtained by Nature add further evidence of a slow response. In most of 2016, Italian laboratories processed almost no Xylella samples — indicating that monitoring had almost ceased (see ‘Lab drought’). Authorities did not respond to requests for comment. –nature.com

 

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