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

Memorandum 8

Submission from Prospect


  1.  Prospect is a trade union representing 102,000 scientific, technical, managerial and specialist staff in the Civil Service and related bodies and major companies. Our members include 4,000 scientific and technical staff in five research councils and 68,000 scientists, engineers and technologists overall. Many of our members work in sectors where biosecurity is a key part of their professional lives, for example in defence and animal research. This response is informed by the expertise of these members.

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

  2.  Prospect members work with micro-organisms up to hazard group 4 (causing fatal and untreatable diseases). There are few such laboratories in the UK, probably amounting to less than 10 overall, but these include facilities at the Health Protection Agency and a couple of other Research Council Institutes. Most large universities with established medical microbiology departments will have a level 3 facility ie working with micro-organisms that cause fatal diseases in healthy hosts but with treatment available. Veterinary disease institutes, such as the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge, also work to level 3 as will institutes involved in work on TB or HIV.

The state of biological containment facilities in the UK

  3.  Public sector facilities include Porton Down, which are world-class. All facilities need to be of equal or greater standards than legislative requirements. Clearly there has been much publicity over the state of containment facilities at Pirbright.

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

  4.  Prospect would expect facilities to be regularly inspected at senior corporate and local levels. It is important that inspection procedures do not become too regimented, as this can cause things to be missed. HSE also regularly inspects high containment facilities, though clearly the regulatory and inspection regimes are likely to change in the light of the recommendations of the Callaghan Review. Prospect would recognise the benefits of both a single inspection/enforcement authority for animal and human pathogens and the importance of avoiding potential conflicts of interest. With HSE taking on this responsibility we will wish to have confidence that its operational staff implement HSE instructions on making and maintaining contact with employee representatives.

Biosafety training provision for staff working in containment facilities

  5.  It is of utmost importance that staff working with high containment facilities receive appropriate training. For example, the Defence Scientific and Technical Laboratory (DSTL) provides a hierarchy of training. These start with taught courses at level 2. Staff are then required to work at level 2 and receive hands on training for more than a year and to serve a probationary period before progressing to level 3. For level 4 the requirement is to work at level 3 and receive hands on training for more than a year as well as serving a probationary period and undertaking high level consultation with safety experts.

Measures implemented when pathogenic material cannot be accounted for

  6.  As staff are security cleared and high containment facilities are access controlled, this is not perceived as a major problem. Records are kept as a matter of routine, though these may be of limited value due to the ease of generating more material. It is impossible to guarantee that records will never be falsified.

January 2008

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