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Ironies all round

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IN his foreword to the report of the independent review of the biosecurity arrangements in place at the Pirbright facility in Surrey, commissioned as a result of last month's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) on a nearby farm, the review group's chairman, Professor Brian Spratt, remarks that ‘it is an irony that those facilities that help us to control outbreaks of disease have the potential to cause disease if organisms are accidentally released into the environment’. Other commentators have described the accidental release of fmd virus from a Government-sponsored research site in stronger terms, but, for the sake of argument, the word ‘irony’ will do.

As Professor Spratt points out, fmd and several other animal diseases remain a serious threat to the uk: the Institute for Animal Health's (iah's) laboratories at Pirbright carry out essential research on these diseases, developing and implementing the diagnostic tests required to identify infected animals rapidly, and providing the scientific understanding essential for effective disease control, including the potential for new vaccines. Similarly, Merial Animal Health's vaccine production facility on the same site produces vaccines to assist in the control of fmd and bluetongue. The importance of work undertaken at Pirbright was demonstrated by the direct role it played in helping to control the outbreak, which, ironically, almost certainly originated at the site. It would be a tragedy if, as a result of this incident, this essential work were in any way curtailed.

There are other ironies associated with the outbreak. Professor Spratt's report draws attention to underinvestment in the iah's ageing facilities at Pirbright, contrasting them with Merial's ‘state of the art’ vaccine production facilities, yet the outbreak occurred at a time when a commitment to upgrading the iah facilities had already been made and construction work was under way. Indeed, as Professor Spratt's report and the Health and Safety Executive's investigations into the outbreak make clear, vehicles associated with construction work on the site may have contributed to the spread of the virus to the affected farm.

Professor Spratt's report remarks that it is ‘surprising’ that the iah laboratories charged with the safe handling of fmd and other exotic animal viruses are so old. It points out that old laboratories are not necessarily unsafe, or new ones safe, as safety depends not on the age of the facility but on procedures that are carried out, approved protocols that are appropriate to the facility, regular inspection and testing, and a strong culture of biological safety and management. However, it says, ‘as with a 50-year-old car, an old containment facility is much more likely to go wrong, requires more repairs, more extensive preventative maintenance and more regular safety inspections than a modern facility’. Arguments will continue about the circumstances that led to the virus escaping. However, Professor Spratt's report probably gets close to the mark when it points out that ‘The poor state of the iah laboratories, and the effluent pipes, indicates that adequate funding has not been available to ensure the highest standards of safety for the work on fmd virus carried out in this ageing facility. Adequate funding to ensure the safety of the important work on fmd virus at iah must be put in place until the new high containment laboratories are completed around 2012’.

Meanwhile, the apparent dispute about who should be responsible for maintenance work on the effluent pipe from which the leak of virus is thought to have occurred perhaps reflects a general societal culture in which financial pressures and a preoccupation with specific budgets can hinder progress. Such preoccupations can cause difficulties in any situation. In this case it appears it may have contributed to virus literally escaping through the cracks.

None of this is to excuse the failure in biosecurity at Pirbright, although it does make it more understandable. The recommendations in the two reports must be acted upon, and the lessons applied. An early lesson should be that it is not enough for a government simply to invest in new facilities; it is also important to ensure that resources are available to cover operational costs and ensure that facilities are maintained.

Of the two further reviews being commissioned as a result of the incident, one will examine funding, governance and risk management at the Pirbright site. The other, to be led by Sir Bill Callaghan, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, will look at the regulatory framework for animal pathogens, and could clearly have implications for animal disease research elsewhere. Should any of the recommendations turn out to have cost implications, additional resources must be found. Research on animal pathogens is vital in the fight against disease, and it is in everyone's interests that the necessary capability is maintained.

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