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

Memorandum 15

Submission from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)


  1.  BBSRC[13] is the UK's principal funder of basic and strategic bioscience. To deliver our mission, we support research and postgraduate training in universities and research centres throughout the UK, including seven BBSRC-sponsored institutes. We also promote knowledge transfer from basic research to applications in business, industry and policy, and foster public engagement in the biosciences.

  2.  As a major public funder of bioscience, BBSRC invests over £40 million per annum in research and training on a wide range of pathogens of plants, animals and humans. We work with sister research councils such as MRC and NERC where our research interests are complementary. Over half of BBSRC's funding for research on plant and animal pathogens is deployed through key BBSRC-sponsored institutes (see below), with the remainder going to leading University departments.

  In summary BBSRC wishes to make the following main points to the Committee:

    —  Excellent basic bioscience research is essential to combat the threat of dangerous pathogens and to minimise their economic and social impact. It is not only human and livestock pathogens that present a risk but also those of key crops upon which the farming economy and food production depends.

    —  Most of the UK's capacity to work on dangerous pathogens of livestock and plants rests in BBSRC-sponsored institutes. This is particularly the case with animal disease where the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) is a major international centre of excellence.

    —  The BBSRC institutes are a vital national resource and provide the Government with crucial expertise and unique facilities not available in universities.

    —  It is essential that institutes such as IAH are financially sustainable to maintain investment in skills and modern well equipped facilities, are able to work with dangerous pathogens and are well governed.

    —  The ongoing redevelopment of IAH-Pirbright as a national centre for surveillance, diagnosis and research on exotic viral pathogens of animals must continue with all partners (BBSRC and Defra) committed and sharing the full costs.

  3.  In making this submission we focus on the first three points raised by the IUS Committee (current capacity, state of biosecurity facilities and inspection/licensing). The remaining points are covered in the joint response from BBSRC, MRC and NERC via RCUK.


  4.  Infectious pathogenic organisms pose a major risk of disease to plants (crops), animals and people, where the health, economic and social impacts are potentially huge—for example, the 2001 foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak was estimated to have cost the UK economy around £8 billion.[15]

  5.  The threat posed by dangerous pathogens is increasing with growing international movement of people, livestock and agricultural products. This is compounded by the effects of climate change that expose the UK to emergent diseases—eg, the first cases of bluetongue virus in the UK were recorded in summer 2007. Zoonotic infections,[16] including major foodborne pathogens, also continue to pose risks to public health. These include transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (eg BSE/vCJD), avian influenza, SARS, Salmonella and E.coli O157.

  6.  Plant pathogens (fungi, bacteria, viruses and invertebrates), although not directly a human health issue, nevertheless have the potential to cause significant economic and amenity loss. In the 1970s the introduction of Dutch elm disease changed the face of the UK countryside with the destruction of millions of trees. Recently Sudden Oak Death has arrived, prompting concerns that further losses of native trees may occur. It is only the availability of modern fungicides and other agrochemicals that prevent significant yield losses of many priority crops due to pathogens.

  7.  Despite the UK's phytosanitary regulations and practices (administered by Defra) several significant plant diseases pose a threat to the UK. Warmer summers could result in the emergence of diseases that have not previously thrived under UK conditions. One example is black stem rust; an aggressive disease of wheat. In 2007, a particularly virulent strain of this disease (Ug99) spread to Yemen from East Africa, following the first discovery in Uganda in 1999. There are now concerns that it could spread both to Europe and Asia. UK wheat cultivars have not been bred to resist this disease, and its arrival could result in significant increases in fungicide use and associated cost increases to the industry. A precedent for such pandemic expansion has already occurred with the spread of soybean rust out of Africa into South America in 2001 (and subsequently the southern USA), resulting in the need for fungicide treatment on the soybean crop for the first time.


  8.  High quality basic and strategic bioscience is essential to prevent or treat disease outbreaks. Research provides an understanding of the infectious organism and its interaction with the host. This knowledge underpins the development of rapid and reliable diagnostic tests, and effective vaccines, therapies or other control strategies. With the support of mathematical modelling and epidemiological data, scientific research determines our ability to implement an effective response to dangerous pathogens and to minimise their impact.

  9.  Examples of where science has been instrumental in responding to outbreaks include the recent cases of bluetongue in the East of England (see Annex 1 for the bluetongue story) and in the 2007 FMD outbreak, where state-of-the-art genome sequencing promptly identified the order in which farms became infected (techniques developed from fundamental genetic research at IAH), and where rapid diagnosis was provided through the development of a lateral flow device for the detection of FMD virus particles. Results were delivered to Defra within one hour of the samples being received at Pirbright.


  10.  Where research is undertaken through BBSRC grants to universities, the university is responsible for biosecurity. Where the research is undertaken in a BBSRC institute then health and safety and biosecurity are the responsibility of the institute Director, who is accountable to Council though the BBSRC Chief Executive and is responsible to the Chair of the respective governing body. The Director cannot delegate or devolve this accountability but may delegate duties and authority to senior members of the management team. The remainder of this submission refers mainly to the institutes.


 (a)   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

Animal pathogens

  11.  Capacity for research on dangerous pathogens of animals is concentrated mainly in the BBSRC-sponsored Institute for Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. There is further capacity, though small in comparison to IAH and VLA, at the Roslin Insititute (work on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies), Moredun Research Institute (Scottish Government-sponsored) and a few universities, typically in vet schools.

  12.  The IAH is a world leading centre[17] of excellence for research on diseases of farm animals and has disease containment and other facilities that are unique in the UK. IAH hosts world, EU and regional reference laboratories for a number of diseases and its work provides vital support to Defra through independent scientific and policy advice, disease surveillance, diagnosis and response to disease outbreaks. The journal Nature in an editorial in its 20 September 2007 edition stated:

    "The IAH is central to Britain's ability to protect itself against future outbreaks of animal disease, whether unleashed by natural causes, human error or enemy action. It also has a vital role in these issues internationally. To fulfil these roles the institute requires (and indeed has) a world-class research base that lets it address key scientific questions and at the same time maintain and develop the techniques needed to identify and deal with diseases".

  13.  The ability of IAH-Pirbright to work with pathogens such as foot and mouth disease virus in large animal hosts in bio-containment facilities is a major asset and is lacking in the university sector.

Foodborne zoonoses

  14.  UK capacity to conduct research on pathogens responsible for foodborne zoonoses is located mainly in the BBSRC Institute of Food Research (IFR), IAH and strong university groups eg Cambridge and Birmingham. IFR currently has the capacity to conduct research across the full range of foodborne and gut pathogens and associated toxins, working with organisms at ACDP Hazard Group 1, 2 and 3. IFR has one of the very few facilities within the UK able to deal with Clostridium botulinum (the causative agent of botulism) and any associated major outbreak.

Plant pathogens

  15.  Defra Plant Health Division administers and issues licences to import, move or keep prohibited plant pathogens (and invertebrates). Capacity to work on quarantined or licensed plant pathogens is concentrated in BBSRC institutes such as Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre, or in other PSREs such as the Scottish Crop Research Institute, Central Science Laboratory (Defra) and Forest Research. Some universities, especially those linked to former research institutes, such as Warwick HRI, also have some capability. The UK commercial sector has limited capability with the shift of the agrochemical and biotech industries to mainland Europe and the USA. Syngenta (Jealott's Hill) is the only large industry research facility remaining.

Future capability?

  16.  It is not possible to predict the full range of pathogens that will threaten the UK in the future; eg avian flu hardly featured in disease strategies a few years ago. It is clear, however, that climate change and increased mobility of people, livestock and food products will increase the disease threats at our borders. The UK must therefore maintain sufficient flexible research capability to work not only on the pathogens that we can see pose a potential threat but also on those that will surprise us.

  17.  In the field of animal disease research, IAH is clearly a national centre but its facilities and infrastructure are in need of replacement (see below on "state of UK facilities" for more details). The planned redevelopment of IAH-Pirbright by BBSRC and Defra will result in state-of-the-art containment facilities due to be commissioned in 2012. But the cost has risen and it is vital that all partners make the necessary funding commitments to see the project through.

  18.  The future capacity for research on dangerous pathogens of animals needs to be considered more widely than just BBSRC Institutes. There are benefits to maintaining the strong linkages between basic and strategic research and wider diagnostics. We are therefore of the view that there needs to be an overarching national strategy, involving all associated public funding bodies (eg Defra, MOD, HEIs and devolved governments), and considering resources at Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), Porton Down and the veterinary schools together with those of BBSRC institutes.

  19.  The UK's current capacity to work on zoonotic organisms and emergent plant pathogens is probably adequate. Facilities for work on insect-transmitted plan diseases, such as those caused by viruses and phytoplasmas, which are likely to increase in importance with climate change, are currently limited to a few Institutes (eg BBSRC-sponsored Rothamsted Research) that have containment facilities for both insect vectors and microbial pathogens, and hence are well placed for future eventualities. There are now concerns however that UK expertise in practical crop pathology is eroded to the extent that we do not have sufficient expert capability in place to quickly indentify and deal with all of the potential plant disease problems that could emerge. We accept that this is a side issue to containment facilities, but it is highly relevant to future capability.

 (b)   The state of biological containment facilities in the UK

  20.  We are aware of no specific issues with the containment facilities necessary to conduct research on foodborne zoonotic organisms or plant pathogens for which BBSRC is the funder. In fact BBSRC institutes have some of the best facilities nationally. The remainder of this section of the submission therefore deals with the state of biological containment facilities for work on animal pathogens.

The IAH estate

  21.  Over the past decade, BBSRC has been actively restructuring its institutes to maintain crucial capabilities and secure national facilities to support their long-term sustainability.

  22.  Given the nature of the work at IAH, modern facilities and high-level biosecurity must be of the utmost importance. BBSRC has already recognised the need to modernise the IAH estate and has set in train a multi-million pound investment as follows:


  23.  In 2002 BBSRC Council commissioned a review[18] (chaired by Professor Keith Gull) on IAH-Pirbright. The report found the condition of much of the Pirbright site infrastructure was unsatisfactory and identified a clear need for urgent investment in new laboratories and facilities. BBSRC Council quickly took forward the recommendations from the report, leading to the ongoing major redevelopment of the Pirbright site in partnership with Defra following a further review of UK facilities Dr by Richard Cawthorne, the then Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer.

  24.  The redevelopment includes the relocation of the virology work at the VLA from its current location at Weybridge to the Pirbright site, joining IAH virology research in a new state-of-the-art laboratory complex. Once the new development is operational (scheduled for 2012) it will be one of the foremost facilities in Europe and probably the World.

  25.  The cost of the project was estimated in 2003 at £121M to be jointly funded by BBSRC, the DIUS Large Facilities Capital Fund and Defra. But the cost now looks certain to rise to accommodate regulatory changes, market conditions and high inflation for building work. It is vital that the partners in this ambitious development continue to invest and meet fully their share of the revised cost of £165 million.

  26.  Following the foot and mouth outbreak in summer 2007 the Government commissioned two reports to investigate any possible link between the outbreak and the Pirbright site, which is shared by the IAH and Merial Animal Health Ltd. The HSE was asked to investigate potential breaches of biosecurity and Professor Brian Spratt was asked to examine more broadly the safety of UK facilities handling FMD virus.

  27.  Whilst the CL4 facilities at IAH-Pirbright met Defra licensing requirements, the HSE report concluded that it was highly likely that the FMD virus originated from the Merial or IAH sites at Pirbright, most likely through a drain that was no longer in good repair, and that the virus was carried off site by a contractor's vehicles. If this is correct then it is an unfortunate irony that the presence of contractors on site was part of the construction of the new high containment laboratories.

  28.  Professor Spratt in his report underlined that the redevelopment at IAH-Pirbright should continue as a matter of urgency—a point clearly endorsed by the Government in its formal response.[19] Professor Spratt made two recommendations that are particularly relevant to the UK's future capability:

    —  Recommendation 10 urges a re-examination of the Pirbright development plans to ensure that all safety critical issues have been addressed.

    —  Recommendation 12 proposes that given biosecurity is of utmost importance then there should be a review of funding, governance and risk management at IAH-Pirbright to ensure an appropriate focus on biosafety and biosecurity in the future.

  29.  BBSRC is pursuing both of these recommendations with due urgency. The latter review (recommendation 12) is being chaired by Professor Sir John Beringer (ex ProVC of the University of Bristol and current member of the Government's Council for Science and Technology). BBSRC Council has asked Sir John's review to look at the future of IAH as a whole (not just the Pirbright site) and he will report in April 2008 on the most appropriate future governance, funding and risk management arrangements for this key institute. The IUS Committee may wish to invite Sir John to give oral evidence in its current inquiry.


  30.  The IAH-Compton site, with its focus on research on endemic diseases of livestock, also requires major work to bring it to modern standards; some of the buildings are no longer usable. An estates strategy is being developed to modernise or replace the Compton research facilities and meet regulatory needs. Options include redevelopment at Compton or moving to another site, possibly co-location with Pirbright.

  31.  Pending the outcome of Sir John Beringer's review, and if Compton is to be replaced in full, then the necessary investment could be as high as £220 million over the next six to seven years. BBSRC would meet 50% of the costs and would be looking for a substantial contribution from the DIUS Large Facilities Capital Fund.

 (c)   Laboratory inspection regimes and the rationale and practicalities of the licensing system

  32.  We agree with the recommendations made recently in the report by Sir Bill Callaghan on the regulatory framework for animal pathogens.[20] In BBSRC's view the new single regulatory framework, which is to be in place by the end of 2008, must address the following:

    —  There should be a single, independent regulator for all aspects of work involving animal pathogens. The regulator needs to be independent of, and separate from any funder, customer or governor. We endorse the proposal that HSE takes on this role.

    —  There should be a single regulatory framework that is applied consistently and transparently. It emerged from the Spratt and HSE reports into the first phase of the 2007 FMD outbreak that the conditions of IAH and Merial's SAPO 4 licences issued by Defra were different, even though the two organisations were on the same site, sharing infrastructure and working with the same viruses, albeit in vastly different quantities—IAH in millilitre volumes and Merial in thousands of litres.

    The crucial inconsistency was that Merial's SAPO 4 licence allowed the company to discharge live virus material into a drainage system whereas the IAH licence did not. The drain was neither designed for live virus nor operated on the basis that live virus would be entering the system; furthermore the lease from IAH to Merial prohibited the release of such substances in to the drain.

    There was a lack of transparency because neither Defra nor Merial informed IAH of the Company's licensing conditions. Defra took the view that all licensing matters are confidential between Defra and the licensee, even when there were two parties operating on the same site and using shared infrastructure. Our view, reinforced by events subsequent to the FMD outbreak, is that all aspects of regulation must be transparent and any changes to a licence for one operator on a site where there are multiple operations must be consulted upon with all those occupying the site.

    —  There must be an expert regulator that understands the risk and cost benefit balance of its regulatory impacts and has the capacity and expertise, potentially international, in biocontainment infrastructure to audit to an appropriate level containment facilities such as those at IAH. Again, we would have confidence in HSE being such a regulator.

January 2008



  Bluetongue virus (BTV) causes a severe disease in some ruminants such as sheep and cattle. Biting midges spread the virus between animals, and sheep are particularly prone where symptoms include fever, lameness, rapid loss of condition and muscle wastage. Bluetongue is historically rare in Europe but over the past eight years it has killed over 1.5 million sheep, across 12 EU countries. Major outbreaks in the Mediterranean Basin and Balkans in 1998 were followed by the first cases in northern Europe in 2006 and the first in the UK in 2007.

  Researchers at the IAH-Pirbright laboratory have long been tracking the progress of bluetongue northwards and advising that it would eventually reach the UK. Institute scientists were the first to show that the bluetongue virus could swap hosts to other species of midge and that infected insects could be carried long distances on the wind.

  In collaboration with the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool, IAH scientists developed new mathematical models that showed the critical role of temperature in the infection process. Too cold and the virus will not build-up sufficiently in the midge for effective infection; too hot and the midges might die before they are able to transmit the virus. Crucially the work predicted that the UK would be suitable for the establishment and spread of bluetongue.

  The UK farming community was bracing itself for a bluetongue outbreak in 2007 after IAH scientists in collaboration with the Met Office used meteorological analysis of the northern European outbreak in 2006 to show that the temperatures were ideal for rapid multiplication of the virus in the midges, and easterly winds in 2007 could easily carry the biting insects to south eastern England.

  IAH is the Bluetongue Reference Laboratory on behalf of the European Union and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). As a world centre for bluetongue research IAH has helped to provide detailed knowledge of the virus and its molecular structure; knowledge that is essential for rapid and accurate diagnosis. On the same day in 2007 that IAH confirmed the presence of bluetongue virus in Suffolk, tests showed that the virus was of the same serotype as was in Belgium and neighbouring countries, thus confirming earlier predictions about the spread of the disease.

  During the 2007 bluetongue outbreak, IAH has been able to make a diagnosis within two hours for the antibody test, and within six hours for the test that detects the bluetongue virus' genetic material (RNA) on blood samples received from a farm where bluetongue is suspected. This service is provided seven days a week. The testing of blood samples taken from animals in the control zone (in which infected animals have been confirmed) and in the surrounding protection zone helps to identify whether the disease is spreading further, and the limits to which it has spread.

  The institute scientists and collaborators are currently investigating many aspects of bluetongue transmission and risk in several ongoing projects, using techniques from field collections and laboratory experiments to computer modelling and satellite imagery. Recent work has described a novel mechanism for the virus to conceal itself within host immune cells, which may offer some insight into the puzzling ability of the virus to reappear in areas after long periods of absence and without any apparent reintroduction event.

13   BBSRC, a non-departmental public body, is one of seven Research Councils supported through the Science and Innovation Group of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). BBSRC works with partner Research Councils through RCUK. Back

14   We take dangerous pathogens to mean those included in: The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) Approved List of biological agents, for the purposes of the COSHH Regulations 2002 (particularly the Group 3 and Group 4 biological agents); Specified animal pathogens listed in Part I of the Schedule to the Specified Animal Pathogens Order 1998; Human and animal pathogens covered by the Home Office "Pathogens and Toxins Guidance" (ATCSA 2001 Schedule 5 Order 2007 Notes; and The Plant Health (England) Order 2005 as amended, and equivalent regulations. Back

15   Economic costs of the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001. D Thompson et al (2002). Rev sci tech Off int Epiz, 21 (3), 675-687. Back

16   Zoonotic infections are those that can pass from animals/livestock to people. Back

17   Research within IAH is split over two sites: IAH-Compton-endemic disease, (eg TB, Salmonella); unique resources for immunology in cattle (MHC herd) and chicken (for avian flu work). IAH-Pirbright-exotic viral diseases (eg foot and mouth, bluetongue), world reference laboratories. Unique facilities in the UK for working with disease agents in large animals. Back

18   Review of the Institute for Animal Health-Pirbright Laboratory: Back

19 Back

20 Back

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