Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 3

Submission from Dr George McIlroy, Chief Executive, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute for Northern Ireland


  The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) is a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland (DARD). AFBI carries out work on pathogens up to HSE ACDP (Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens) hazard group 3 and monitors for pathogens up to DEFRA hazard group 4 ( SAPO (Specified Animal Pathogens Order) pathogens that may cause animal or plant diseases or food-borne illness. This work is carried out in laboratories up to ACDP biocontainment level 3. I believe that the recommendations of the Callaghan Review would greatly simplify licensing and inspection arrangements, and significantly improve the effectiveness of biosecurity measures for work on human and animal pathogens.


  The Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI) was created on 1 April 2006 as an amalgamation of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland (DARD) Science Service and the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ARINI). AFBI is a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) sponsored by DARD.

  AFBI carries out high technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DARD and other government departments, public bodies and commercial companies.

  AFBI's NDPB status enables it to be innovative and entrepreneurial in its approach to business development. AFBI is forging new partnerships with other scientific institutes and research organisations and extending the range of services it offers. This enables AFBI's unique breadth of scientific capabilities in the areas of agriculture, animal health, food, fisheries, environment and biosciences to be offered to a wider prospective national and international customer base.

  AFBI has an independent Board which is also responsible for monitoring its performance.

  AFBI carries out surveillance and research work on food-borne pathogens and other infectious agents that pose a threat to animal and plant health. Some of these agents are of zoonotic importance. Maintaining an emergency responses capability to outbreaks of serious animal and plant disease, to food and environmental emergencies and to chemical and biological incidents affecting public safety is an important component of AFBI's work and responsibility.


Current capacity for research on dangerous pathogenic material in AFBI and the capability to conduct research on the causative agents of disease that may emerge at a future time

  AFBI does not hold nor carry out research on SAPO (Specified Animal Pathogens Order) category 4 pathogens. At present it is unable to do so because of the absence of a SAPO level 4 biocontainment laboratory in Northern Ireland.

  AFBI carries out work on several hazard group 3 level pathogens that can cause serious disease in animals and humans. The institute has a large number of skilled staff with laboratory expertise for work on a wide variety of animal, plant and food-borne pathogens. This pool of expertise is available for work on new pathogens that could emerge in the future. Surveillance for the emergence of new animal, plant and food-borne pathogens is an important component of AFBI's work.

The state of biological containment facilities in AFBI

  A suite of modern, state-of-the art ACDP biocontainment level 3 laboratories, which will substantially supplement existing facilities, is currently in the final stages of commissioning at AFBI. It is planned that these laboratories will be occupied in spring 2008. They will replace several older laboratories which will then be de-commissioned.

  AFBI is seeking funding for the construction of a biocontainment laboratory for surveillance work on DEFRA and SAPO hazard group 4 pathogens that pose a threat to the agri-food industry and may be of importance to human health eg avian influenza in Northern Ireland.

  AFBI also has recently constructed modern animal biocontainment accommodation for work on hazard group 3 pathogens of animals.

Laboratory inspection regimes and the rationale and practicalities of the licensing system

  AFBI laboratories are subject to inspection by the Health and Safety Executive (Northern Ireland) (HSE (NI), DARD, the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland and the Environment and Heritage Service Radiochemical Inspectorate. Several AFBI laboratories have security approval from the Police Service of Northern Ireland antiterrorism office for work on schedule 5 pathogens as listed in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

    I support the recent recommendations of the Callaghan Review. In particular, I agree that the use of both animal and human pathogens should be governed by a single independent regulatory framework, with responsibility for regulation of these pathogens passing to the Health and Safety Executive. I also strongly support the Callaghan recommendation that risk assessment should be a key element of the regulatory framework for handling animal pathogens, as it is currently for human pathogens and genetically modified organisms. I agree with the recommendation that the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens is asked to draw up guidance on a single set of containment requirements for human and animal pathogens, to complement the single regulatory framework when it is introduced.

    I believe that the recommendations of the Callaghan Review would simplify licensing and inspection arrangements, and improve the effectiveness of biosecurity measures for work on human and animal pathogens.

Biosafety training provision for staff working in containment facilities

  Biosafety training for staff in AFBI includes in-house and externally procured training. For example, a number of staff have received training at Porton Down and receive regular refresher training. Staff from the Health Promotion Agency, Porton Down will be coming to AFBI in Spring 2008 to provide a week-long course in biosafety to another group of AFBI staff. AFBI staff also participate in international conferences and workshops on biosafety.

  All research undertaken in AFBI is accredited to ISO 9001 and, where relevant, to GLP (Good Laboratory Practice) standards of accreditation. Analytical tests in many laboratories are also accredited to the ISO17025 standard Application of the standard operating procedures required for these standards is an important element in strengthening biosafety protocols within AFBI.

The maintenance and recording practices surrounding the storage and transportation of dangerous pathogens

  Staff and contractors who are to work on the site are security vetted by DARD. Security of stored pathogens in AFBI has several levels. The sites at which hazard group 3 pathogens are held are protected by 24-hour security staff and a perimeter fence. All visitors to AFBI must report to security staff on arrival where they are issued with passes which must be displayed at all times while on-site. Visitors must be accompanied by members of AFBI staff who must display visible ID at all times. Access to areas in which hazard group 3 pathogens are held is controlled by a proximity card and/or proximity card and "PIN" number and there is a record kept of visitors/ contractors to these laboratories. Within these secure areas, hazard group 3 pathogens are held in locked containers (normally refrigerators). Written records are maintained of all stored hazard group 3 and schedule 5 pathogens. AFBI's Veterinary Sciences Division was highly commended following a recent inspection of schedule 5 facilities by the PSNI.

  A significant number of AFBI staff have received training in packaging of samples of pathogenic material to International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards and are used for packaging and dispatching such material for transport.

Measures implemented when pathogenic material cannot be accounted for

  There have been no examples of such unaccounted loss in AFBI. In the event of an unaccounted loss, the immediate area would be restricted until evidence gathering and assessments have been made. The visitor and contractor access records would be examined. Security vetting for contractors who have worked on site since last audit of cultures would be reviewed to ensure there have been no lapses in vetting. The PSNI would be informed and forensic services sought for evidence gathering. DARD would be informed of the incident.

The role of universities in overseeing security clearance for research students working with dangerous pathogens

  While AFBI is not a university, a small number of university research students work in AFBI laboratories. Unless working in a laboratory approved by the PSNI for work on schedule 5 pathogens, there is no formal security clearance process for these students. However, the number of students who might work on hazard group 3 pathogens is very small and they are closely supervised by AFBI staff all of whom have an appropriate level of security clearance.

January 2003

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