Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Sixth Report

6  Staff working on dangerous pathogens

Supply of staff

121.  The Government estimates that 250,000 scientists currently work with dangerous pathogens in the UK.[226] On our visits to high containment facilities, we were universally impressed by the staff we met, some of whom work under exacting conditions.

122.  Shortages of trained staff in the area of infectious disease were identified by the Institute of Safety in Technology and Research (ISTR), the Institute of Biology/Biosciences Federation[227] and the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) which highlighted that:

    There is a danger that the UK is gradually losing expertise to investigate and handle certain dangerous pathogens through previous lack of interest and lack of adequate funding, both in the medical and in the veterinary fields.[228]

Particular shortages have been highlighted in the area of CL4-trained staff in both medical and veterinary science.[229] Dr John Stephenson of the HPA expressed some doubt that his agency had sufficient CL4 expertise, with only three or four fully trained staff currently able to operate at this level,[230] despite the assertion by the Minister of State for Public Health, the Rt Hon. Dawn Primarolo MP, that there was no shortage at the HPA.[231] Both the HPA and the VLA are currently expanding their pool of CL4 trained staff, the latter in preparation for the opening of the new facility at Pirbright,[232] although both are confident that they have sufficient staff trained at CL3.[233]

123.  Shortages of Biological Safety Officers (BSOs), trained managers[234] and researchers in the fields of medical entomology[235] and crop pathology[236] were also identified in evidence. It is vital that there are sufficient trained personnel to respond to outbreaks of infectious disease and we were not convinced that this is currently the case. For example, Professor Martin Shirley of IAH told us that there was a shortage of expertise to deal with an outbreak of bluetongue.[237] In addition to the staff operating containment facilities, concern has been expressed that there is a "lack of UK based specialist containment architects and engineers".[238]

124.  The specialist field of high containment biology is critical to the national interest of the UK. We recommend that, through the inter-agency body we have recommended be set up, the Government review the retention of staff and the incentives available for those working in this area to ensure that supply is sufficient for current and future needs.


125.  The VLA describe the availability of trained staff as an "essential component" of capacity to carry out work at high containment.[239] The regulatory framework is confused in this area. For example, employers have a general requirement under Health and Safety law to provide adequate training, GMO(CU) regulations require specified training to be undertaken and COSHH regulations set out guidelines for the content of training.[240] Dr Matthew Penrose of the HSE told us that:

    The regulatory requirement is that it is left to individual organisations and sites as to how they want to train their staff … In the university setting there is not that legal requirement for all staff to be trained to a common level.[241]

126.  We found that the provision of training in biorisk management and the handling of pathogens is not well co-ordinated, At present individual organisations are responsible for providing training and thus approaches vary. This is also the situation internationally.[242] Organisations run their own training schemes[243] which may not be readily transferable. ISTR told us that provision at a local level allows for a significant variation in the quality of training and perpetuates local practice, whether or not this is ideal.[244] However, we were told by organisations representing scientists that there is no evidence of a widespread failure to train staff adequately.[245] Dr Matthew Penrose of the HSE told us that "in practice we find that organisations do train their staff."[246]

127.  Both laboratory managers and BSOs have a key role in biorisk management and require tailored training, especially since at present they are often responsible for training other staff in the laboratory. We heard support for a formalisation of their training[247] as is in progress in Switzerland.[248]

128.  Some formal training courses for staff at various levels do exist. For example, the MRC runs a course for BSOs while both HPA and MRC run courses for those working in Containment Laboratories.[249] HPA is planning a purpose-built training facility at the Porton Down site which will be able to train up to CL4.[250] The ISTR is currently developing an accreditation programme for training providers,[251] and there is collaboration between the MRC and ISTR on the future of training programmes for biosafety professionals.[252] The ISTR and Robert Osborne, Biological Safety Adviser at the University of Glasgow expressed support for these initiatives and their extension.[253]

129.  The development of standardised training regimes would be one way to ensure a uniform, high standard of staff training and would in addition give high containment work a more professional status.[254] Professor Griffin told us that Medical Laboratory Scientific Officers carrying out diagnostics in containment laboratories in the NHS have a structured training and accreditation programme.[255] Introduction of a similar scheme for all those handling dangerous pathogens could provide reassurance to employers that a basic level of competence has been reached. Conversely, given that those running a facility have ultimate responsibility for safety and training, some might prefer to continue to train individuals from scratch, to their own satisfaction. We heard strong support across the board (scientists, the HSE, funding bodies and Government Agencies) for a transferable certification of competence for working in high containment laboratories.[256] However, a number of witnesses were adamant that any certificate could not be relied upon completely and that certified training programmes should be minimalist, providing a baseline to be built upon with 'on the job' training using specific pathogens under local conditions.[257] Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the MRC, told us:

    we must not overlook … where the primacy of the responsibility for the safety of the individuals actually participating and working in such an environment actually resides … if I were running a Category 3 facility I do not care how many bits of paperwork a technician or a member of staff actually has, until they prove to me they are competent and are not endangering themselves or others I will not sign off that individual to actually operate in that sector.[258]

130.  Unlike in other countries, undergraduate and masters programmes in the UK rarely include training in biosafety and biosecurity.[259] Sir Bill Callaghan told us that:

    there was an HSE commissioned report some years ago which recommended that health and safety should feature in undergraduate courses … we did not get as far as we would have liked because ultimately the responsibility for courses lies with the academic institution.[260]

The introduction of such content received support, including from the Minister for Science.[261]

131.  We recommend that the Government co-ordinate the funding and development of training schemes for those working with dangerous pathogens, building on schemes currently in existence. These should provide certification that a minimum level of competency has been reached and should be designed as a base from which staff can be further trained locally in the safe use of specific pathogens in a particular laboratory. Training programmes should be tailored to the needs of laboratory staff, principal investigators or BSOs whose training needs differ.

132.  We recommend that DIUS engage with the higher education sector to ensure that undergraduate and masters programmes in relevant subjects include instruction in biorisk management.

Vetting of staff

133.  Laboratories working with dangerous pathogens are potential targets for those wishing to acquire pathogenic material or training in its handling for malicious purposes. Recognising the threat, in April 2005 the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office published a guide to 'Personnel Security Standards for Laboratories' and circulated it to laboratories subject to Part 7 and Schedule 5 of ATCSA. However, security clearance for scientists working with dangerous pathogens is still not harmonised in the UK and for Home and EU staff or students security-vetting is not always a prerequisite for work with dangerous pathogens.[262]

134.  Security procedures for laboratories differ according to containment level:

    CL 4 laboratories are subject to extensive security measures with extremely limited access. All staff granted access must undergo security clearance.

    CL 3 laboratories are subject to security measures required by ATCSA and receive bespoke advice regarding staff security checking.

    CL 2 laboratories are provided with bespoke advice regarding physical and personnel security by Counter-Terrorism Security Advisers.[263]

135.  It is standard practice in Government-run laboratories that staff are security-vetted using Government vetting programmes. The HPA security-vet all those working at ACDP4 to SC level[264] and the VLA subjects all scientific staff working at or above CL3 to counterterrorism checks, insisting that visitors are accompanied or undergo training and security-checking on the same basis as their staff.[265] Outside Government agencies, for example in universities, Research Council Institutes and the private sector, standards of security-vetting vary.[266] On our visit to Pirbright we were informed that IAH, despite undertaking contract work for Government departments, use a professional, private vetting agency for all staff working at CL4 because the institute does not have access to Government vetting schemes. We can see no reason why the ownership and governance of a laboratory should alter the necessity of reliable security-vetting and are concerned by the apparent lack of standardisation in this area, given its importance to national security.

136.  In other countries such as Germany, Japan, Canada and others security vetting is a matter for the institution.[267] In the USA any organisation using a 'select agent' must provide a list of those staff involved in the project. The FBI then conduct finger-printing and background checking for these staff.[268]

137.  For vetting of overseas students, a new system, the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), was introduced in November 2007, administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Non-EU nationals applying to study sensitive subjects must hold a valid ATAS certificate specific to a Higher Education Institution (HEI) and programme of study before applying for entry to the UK or for an extension of their stay. The rules apply to research students and those undertaking masters programmes in some subjects. ATAS replaced the Voluntary Vetting Scheme under which HEIs were able to refer students to the FCO for vetting and received a recommendation on the suitability of the student for the programme. This scheme was considered burdensome and provided only patchy coverage of HEIs since it was discretionary.[269] Both Universities UK and the Research Councils are satisfied that ATAS is operating successfully.[270] However, as a new scheme, ATAS has not been in operation through the peak period for student admissions and there are concerns that increases in throughput may impact on turnaround time.[271]

138.  There was widespread agreement in the evidence that security procedures should not restrict international movement of staff as part of free academic exchange.[272] In addition, the SGM, IAH and Astrazeneca highlighted that UK laboratories play a key role in training personnel from developing countries who are subsequently instrumental in controlling diseases at source.[273] It is possible that security vetting will, to some extent, restrict the movement of staff but ideally the vetting system should not deter bona fide staff from studying and working in the UK.

139.  Security-vetting is intended to minimise the risks of deliberate misuse of dangerous pathogenic material. This risk exists regardless of the ownership and governance of a laboratory or the country of origin of researchers and other staff. We therefore recommend that the Government provide access to Government vetting programmes so that all those working with CL4 pathogens can be reliably security-vetted to a consistent, high standard.

226   Ev 51 Back

227   Ev 68, 98  Back

228   Ev 157 Back

229   Qq 225, 227, 228; Ev 98  Back

230   Q 225 Back

231   Q 379 Back

232   Ev 64; Qq 225-226,  Back

233   Qq 225-226 Back

234   Q 227; Ev 93  Back

235   Q 285 Back

236   Ev 107 Back

237   Qq 284-285 Back

238   Ev 68 Back

239   Ev 64 Back

240   Ev 58  Back

241   Q 142 Back

242   Ev 125, 128, 134, 136, 139, 145, 148 Back

243   Ev 64, 69, 71, 73, 80, 98, 104, 115; Qq 44, 142 Back

244   Ev 69 Back

245   Ev 98, 115, 157  Back

246   Q 142 Back

247   Ev 82, 91  Back

248   Ev 148 Back

249   Ev 66, 78, 93, 119; Qq 46, 223  Back

250   Q 223 Back

251   Q 144; Ev 69 Back

252   Q 221; Ev 78, 91 Back

253   Ev 69, 78  Back

254   Q 297 Back

255   Q 46 Back

256   Qq 45, 146, 297; Ev 70  Back

257   Qq 44-45, 65-69, 78, 221-223, 297-298 Back

258   Q 221 Back

259   Ev 69; Q 59 Back

260   Q 60 Back

261   Qq 59, 380; Ev 123, 133;  Back

262   Ev 69 Back

263   Ev 57 Back

264   Ev 119 Back

265   Ev 64 Back

266   Ev 64, 95, 97  Back

267   Ev 125, 126, 129, 132, 134, 136, 145 Back

268   Ev 139 Back

269   Ev 62  Back

270   Ev 94, 111 Back

271   Ev 112 Back

272   Ev 63, 69, 74, 104, 116, 124, 153  Back

273   Ev 105, 124, 153  Back

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