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Capability and containment

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IT IS unfortunate that it took a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak to make it happen, but the escape of fmd virus from the laboratory complex at Pirbright last year has certainly stimulated interest in how research on dangerous pathogens is carried out and regulated. It is too early to say that good may yet come of the incident, but it does look as if things could be starting to move in the right direction.

‘Biosecurity in uk research laboratories’, a report of an inquiry by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, which was published this week,* is the latest in a string of reports prompted by the outbreak and examines how work involving animal and human pathogens is regulated and funded. Like the earlier reports, it points out that research on existing and emerging infectious diseases is of the utmost importance to the uk, and that high-containment laboratories are needed for this purpose. It supports the idea that long-term underinvestment and aging facilities may have contributed to the escape of the virus from Pirbright and, disturbingly, suggests that similar difficulties may be afflicting research facilities elsewhere, most notably, perhaps, the Health Protection Agency's laboratories at Porton Down.

The report identifies shortcomings in the funding of facilities handling dangerous pathogens, particularly with regard to maintenance and running costs, and says that the Government must ensure that dependable funding is provided to maintain such facilities safely. It also highlights ‘a striking lack of coordination’ between organisations which sponsor and run high-containment laboratories, including a lack of coordination between government departments, which it accuses of taking a ‘silo’ approach to funding.

The Government's submission to the inquiry combined contributions from no fewer than eight government departments. Despite this, the select committee found that no one organisation or minister has the remit to maintain a strategic overview of capacity and to coordinate high-containment laboratories. It also found that current ministers had never met to discuss the issue of biosecurity. It recommends setting up an inter-agency body for the strategic planning and coordination of facilities handling the highest risk pathogens, and calls for long-term funding to cover running costs to ensure that risk management at all sites can take place effectively. It further recommends that a single minister should take responsibility for coordinating biosecurity, and that the Government should present a report to Parliament every two years outlining the uk's readiness in the face of the threat posed by dangerous pathogens.

The report provides a clear exposition of the regulatory framework for work on dangerous pathogens and, in the process, highlights the complexity of the arrangements as things stand. It urges the Government to ensure that the regulation of work on dangerous pathogens is simplified as far as is practicable and supports the conclusions reached by the recent Callaghan review that a single, unified regulatory framework for human and animal pathogens is the appropriate way forward (see VR, December 22/29, 2007, vol 161, p 831).

On the question of capacity, the committee found it difficult to determine whether the uk's high-containment facilities are sufficient to meet current and future requirements, partly because of variations in the size and capability of such facilities, but also because information was hard to come by because of national security considerations. It suggests, not unreasonably, that the Government should know the location, capacity and capability of all high-containment laboratories in the uk, and recommends that one of the first tasks of the new inter-agency coordinating body should be to undertake a detailed audit.

On the future of Pirbright, the select committee describes the redevelopment currently taking place as being ‘of considerable national importance’ and, reinforcing the message of the recent reviews by Dr Iain Anderson and Professor Sir John Beringer, urges the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills and defra to settle how they are to share the cost of the redevelopment project and how to secure long-term funding for the new facilities (see VR, March 15, 2008, vol 162, pp 325, 326-327; May 10, 2008, vol 162, p 601). More generally, it suggests that the Government needs to develop a long-term plan for animal health. Significantly, it picks up on a proposal in the Beringer review for a new national agency for animal health, and recommends that ‘As a matter of urgency the Government produces a White Paper to clarify its strategy for the future of animal health and welfare in the uk, provision of containment laboratories for research and diagnostics and how these would be used in an outbreak.’

At a time when defra's commitment to animal health seems to be waning, this is an important recommendation, and it will be interesting to see how the Government responds. defra continues to grapple with changing priorities and shrinking budgets, but, in the context of what is in many respects a highly critical report, this hardly represents an excuse for the Government not to act. As the select committee states in the conclusion, ‘The outbreak of fmd virus at Pirbright highlights that, in the long run, proper regulation, running and maintenance of high-containment facilities is considerably cheaper than remedying a breach of biocontainment.’

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