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Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

Ilaria Capua says the University of Florida is not at all concerned by her legal troubles at home.

Criminal charges against prominent Italian flu scientist dismissed

The legal travails of one of Italy's best-known scientists are over. Last week, a judge in Verona dismissed a host of criminal charges against veterinary researcher and former politician Ilaria Capua, including allegations that she deliberately set off avian influenza outbreaks that also caused a human epidemic—a crime that would have been punishable with life imprisonment if proven. Capua was also accused of "criminal conspiracy aimed at corruption," handling stolen goods, and administration of drugs that endanger public health.

Verona judge Laura Donati concluded that the statute of limitations on most charges had expired at the time the prosecutor requested a trial in 2014, but noted that even if it hadn't, most charges had no merit. The judge criticized police investigators who handled the affair, even suggesting that some of the accusations had been fabricated.

Capua, who became the head of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month, says she feels "relieved," but also "embittered" because the affair has harmed her credibility. The alleged crimes took place while Capua was director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, a government lab in Padua, Italy. Capua was also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, one of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, for 3 years.

The case originated with a U.S. investigation shortly after 9/11 that involved alleged trafficking of lethal viruses between Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Italy. (The case led to the indictment of six former executives of the Maine Biological Laboratories in 2005 for smuggling poultry viruses into the United States in 1998.) U.S. authorities transmitted information about the case to Italy because an Italian named Paolo Candoli, then an executive in Sanofi, was involved as well. The carabinieri, Italy’s military police, began wiretapping Candoli's phone; his conversations with Capua made her a suspect as well. In the end, 39 others working in science, industry, and regulation were charged with various crimes.

In 2014, the first prosecutor in the case, in Rome, informed the defendants that he had asked for a trial, an announcement that created a huge media storm with Capua at the center. Later, the case was split into four parts; the accusations against Capua and 15 others ended up with a prosecutor in Verona.

Because the investigation had taken almost a decade, however, Italy's strict statute of limitations had expired for all accusations but the most serious: "spreading epidemics." Prosecutors held that Capua and other defendants were responsible for several major avian influenza outbreaks between 1999 and 2003 that led to the culling of millions of chickens. The bird flu virus also infected seven poultry workers, one of whom developed mild influenza symptoms.

The prosecutor in Verona earlier this year issued a motion to drop the spreading epidemics accusation for lack of evidence, but not the others, even though the statute of limitations had run out. The case then moved to a “judge in charge of the preliminary hearing,” who in the Italian legal system decides whether a case goes to trial or not.

In Capua's case, Donati concluded in a verdict issued on 5 July that, regardless of the statute of limitations, the evidence for most of the charges was simply “unsubstantial” and that there won't be a trial. The accusation that Capua and others set off a human epidemic made no sense, she said, because one mild flu case does not constitute an epidemic; moreover, the avian virus she allegedly spread was a different strain than the one that killed the birds in Italy. The Carabinieri's investigators “built up accusations that are totally unfounded,” and in some cases “difficult to understand,” Donati wrote; she even used the expression “fabricating an accusation.”

The only accusation Donati did not dismiss was that Capua put illegal pressure on a company named Intervet—now part of MSD Animal Health—to buy tests that can differentiate vaccinated from unvaccinated poultry. (Capua holds part of the royalties for the test, called DIVA). But even if that charge had gone to court, the judge wrote, Capua and other defendants would have to stand trial for a lighter version of the original allegation because there's no evidence that Intervet gave in to the alleged pressure. And she agreed with a prosecutor in Padua who wrote that another interpretation of the taped phone conversations could be that Intervet put pressure on Capua instead of the other way around.

Capua’s lawyer, Armando de Zuani, says it's “unusual” for a judge in charge of a preliminary hearing to enter into the merits of a case, as Donati did, if the charges can be dismissed solely based on the statute of limitations. “We are very happy that the judge explained that there was no wrong-doing” on virtually all of the charges, he says. “Dr. Capua’s honor is fully restored.” De Zuani says it's “highly improbable” that the prosecution will appeal Donati's decision.

Capua says she is still considering whether to appeal the part of the sentence concerning Intervet so as to get a full acquittal. Italian justice has been “slow” and “incapable of understanding science,” says Capua, who adds that she feels “safe in the knowledge that my scientific career is crystal clear.”

The judge also dismissed charges against the other 14 defendants in the Verona part of the case. The prosecutor in Padua, where the case against a different group of defendants resides, has asked to dismiss all charges as well.