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IN ITS response to the report of the inquiry into the 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak conducted by Sir Iain Anderson, Defra says it accepts all the main recommendations and explains how these are being taken forward (see pp 194-195 of this issue). However, one of its most intriguing, and potentially most worrying, comments relates to an additional recommendation in Sir Iain's report concerning the governance and funding of the Institute for Animal Health's research site at Pirbright, from which the virus that caused the outbreak escaped.
Sir Iain rightly described the work conducted at the IAH as ‘world class’ and ‘critical to the nation's capacity to prepare for, and respond to, the evolving animal disease and zoonotic risk’. However, he also pointed out that, as a result of long-term underinvestment, the facilities of the IAH Pirbright fell ‘well short of international standards’, and that its complex governance and funding arrangements were ‘muddled and ineffective’. He emphasised the importance of the site redevelopment programme underway at Pirbright, and suggested that the IAH should be repositioned as a new National Institute of Infectious Diseases, supported by multiple sources of funding from government and elsewhere, and devoted to ‘vital short, medium and long-term research into animal and zoonotic viral diseases’.
Sir Iain remarked, ‘The events of last summer brought home that the old arrangements at Pirbright must now be discarded. My hope is that a new consensus can be formed to move forward swiftly on a firm, sustainable basis, and I believe that Defra is best placed to take the lead in making this happen. The ambiguities of departmental leadership — and the lack of long-term sustainable funding — that have bedevilled progress in this area must be tackled and not left in doubt any longer.’
Given that Defra, along with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), provides much of the funding for the IAH, and was apparently committed to helping redevelop the site at Pirbright, its response to this recommendation is disturbing. It remarks: ‘Defra, DIUS [the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills] and BBSRC have discussed over the past year the future facilities needed for animal health in the UK and specifically the future management and arrangements at IAH Pirbright. BBSRC will continue to fund the IAH so that it can provide the nation with world-class research facilities that underpin the livestock industries and our food security. DIUS expect BBSRC soon to submit a business case for the redevelopment of the site at Pirbright to allow the continuation of world-class research there on animal diseases. Defra will continue to work with DIUS and BBSRC to ensure that the national provision of research, diagnosis and surveillance enables effective disease detection and response. The IAH and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency will continue to pursue opportunities for collaboration.’
The BBSRC says that it is committed to establishing a new national research facility that takes forward the work of the IAH, describing the scientific case for a new, state-of-the-art national centre for animal health research as ‘overwhelming’. That much is encouraging, but it does raise the question, what will be the commitment from Defra? The BBSRC also says that it is reassessing the details of the planned redevelopment at Pirbright and ‘identifying options for developing a stand-alone flexible research facility for the coming decades’, and that it intends to bid to the DIUS for additional funding. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the necessary funding will be forthcoming. The plans, as outlined, do little to indicate whether enough funding will be available to support the work undertaken at Pirbright, and the Government must clarify its intentions without delay.
Another striking comment in Defra's response relates to cost and responsibility sharing: ‘The Government will be consulting shortly on proposals to establish a new body, headed by an independent Chair and Board, operating at arm's length from Ministers that would assume all of Defra's existing roles and responsibilities in relation to animal health (animal welfare will remain a responsibility of Defra's and the Secretary of State). The consultation … will canvass views on proposals to require livestock keepers to contribute directly to the unbudgeted costs currently falling to Defra for dealing with outbreaks of exotic diseases, as well as providing matching funding for Defra's budgeted preparedness and surveillance work.’ Taken with other comments, this highlights another potentially worrying aspect of the Government's response, namely, that Defra seems already to be planning around its proposals on cost and responsibility sharing before the consultation has been conducted and the necessary structures are in place.
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