Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q40  Chairman: Why?

  Professor Griffin: Because of the danger of spills or breakdown of facilities; because of what would happen if there was a very major leak, and if that leak was perhaps even terrorism-related, to the general population.

  Q41  Dr Iddon: That is quite a clear answer. Thank you. Regarding universities, do you think any university, however well off it was financially, should be allowed to establish a CL4 laboratory to work on dangerous pathogens, or do you think it would be more cost-effective for them to share existing CL4 facilities elsewhere, outside the universities?

  Professor Griffin: I do not think any university should do now. I think there should be clearly a university with a programme looking at dangerous pathogens with experience in microbiology and having important questions to ask. If it is possible to share facilities, then that is very cost-effective, of course; as I have said earlier, it is very expensive to run these facilities, so I do not think every university should have one, and I think universities should be encouraged to share.

  Q42  Dr Iddon: Professor Griffin, you are leading a review of CL4 capacity in the United Kingdom by the Health Protection Agency, I think, but I think the research is commissioned by the MRC.

  Professor Griffin: That is right.

  Q43  Dr Iddon: Could you tell the Committee what your terms of reference are, please, and when you are likely to report?

  Professor Griffin: Yes. We have had two scoping meetings now, the last on Friday, and the report will be available on 1 October this year. The report will look at capacity, answering one of your questions, and will look at the ability to have surge capacity in terms of serious incident or serious new infection. It will look at security in terms of siting to see if there is real evidence that a greenfield site is better than a brownfield site: it will look at international co-operation and international regulation, in particular the States and Europe.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you.

  Q44  Dr Gibson: As you said yourself, a major part of this whole enterprise is the training of people. Have you any comments on that to begin with? Is it uniform, or left to individual universities and individual units to do themselves, and does that make for ambiguities and problems?

  Professor Griffin: That is a really important question, and I have been wrestling with this myself since I took on the Chairmanship of ACDP and you have put your finger on the two most important aspects. If we look at CL3 and 4 together, just for a moment, there are no lists of competences required in order to have someone work inside a laboratory. It is either P3 or P4 level. Each institution will have its own training schemes, will assess competence and will match that against the risk of the procedure being carried out. There is no national certification or diploma to say that somebody has reached a level of competence. It is an apprenticeship scheme, Dr Gibson, and it does concern me, to be quite frank.

  Q45  Dr Gibson: Do you think there should be such a scheme?

  Professor Griffin: I think there should be.

  Q46  Dr Gibson: Is there any chance of that happening?

  Professor Griffin: Yes. In preparing to come to this meeting I have been investigating what courses there are around, and how diagnostic laboratories accredit their workers to work in CL3 particularly, which is relevant to the diagnosis of TB or HIV. The first thing to say if we look at hospitals first is that the MLSOs who work in the laboratory for containment diagnosis all have to have a First degree in a biological subject, and that degree has to be accredited as having 75 per cent of human biology, in loose terminology. They then have to work within the laboratory for three years keeping a portfolio of what proceedings they have carried out, and they are only allowed to work at CL2, which essentially is open-bench and small ventilated hoods. At that point they are accredited and can start to work in CL3 under supervision, and then they have a two-year apprenticeship during which time their competence is assessed, but at the end there is no signing off, no diploma, no certification. Now, one of the problems if we now look at academic laboratories is what do you do when you have a visiting distinguished professor coming to work in your department who wishes to do P3 work and he or she might not have had proper training but he or she wishes to work in a P3? What do you do for a newly graduated First degree person who is doing a PhD in TB or HIV who has very little laboratory experience and requires to get up to speed very quickly? I contacted the Medical Research Council to see the courses that they run and they run a two-day course for laboratory managers, so the managers are familiar with the sort of rules that we are dealing with, and they run a half-day course for graduates just going into research to work in P3 --

  Q47  Dr Gibson: On site or in a centre?

  Professor Griffin: In a centre.

  Q48  Dr Gibson: So people have to go to them? They do not go out to people and instruct the individuals?

  Professor Griffin: No. They run it on a site and then individuals go back, and then it is the responsibility of each of the home laboratories to risk-assess the project on what is going on and then to supervise in really great detail the individual carrying out those procedures.

  Q49  Dr Gibson: I guess you remember how Sheila McKechnie came to fame in health and safety work; it was a smallpox outbreak at Birmingham and it was not the people in the laboratory where it was being carried out, it was the people below, the photographer, who actually died. Now, I worry about cleaners, technicians, porters, firemen and firewomen who go there under certain conditions. How are you going to instruct them, or do we just forget them?

  Professor Griffin: Well, they depend on the governance of the institution and on the risk assessment on the equipment and particularly on the good safe handling --

  Q50  Dr Gibson: But I am a cleaner and I go in at six o'clock and it is rather like this place, they do not know what hazards there might be around. It seems to me they are not instructed either, besides your PhD student and your very eminent Professor.

  Professor Griffin: They would have restricted access and restricted ability.

  Q51  Dr Gibson: You hope, but they have the keys usually.

  Professor Griffin: For P3 laboratories and CL4 laboratories they would not have keys.

  Q52  Dr Gibson: And you are convinced that happens everywhere, given that each centre, as you say, has its own rules?

  Professor Griffin: Well, I have not visited each and every centre, of course, but in my own experience of Porton and St George's, yes, that is the case.

  Q53  Dr Gibson: Porton is a de luxe institute and it has had its experiences, but I doubt if the average university department has that kind of condition appertaining to it because it goes against the grain. There are two things about academia and laboratories—you can go in any time of day or night, because that is the way it is, you go in and work overnight, and, secondly, they kind of object to a biological safety officer telling them what to do. I see you smile there but you know what I mean, because universities get round it by appointing a safety officer who probably does not know as much as you might do on the issue but who has the responsibility from the registrar, or whoever, to carry it out.

  Professor Griffin: Yes. I understand exactly what you are saying and this really then comes down to risk assessment, the head of a division doing this work and the serious nature of this work.

  Q54  Dr Gibson: Do you think that is carried out?

  Professor Griffin: It is certainly carried out in my own group --

  Q55  Dr Gibson: I am sure it is.

  Professor Griffin: -- and I hope it is carried out elsewhere.

  Q56  Dr Gibson: How do you feel about your peers? Yes. I think I know.

  Professor Griffin: But it gets down to individual responsibility. No matter how good a licence is and how many times it is inspected, an individual counts.

  Q57  Dr Gibson: But is there a culture in universities and these kinds of research laboratories that we are talking about who are worrying about health and safety? Does it get in the way of the Nobel prize at one end, the Grade 5 at the other and so on, the pressures that are on people?

  Professor Griffin: I think in groups handling dangerous pathogens, yes, people are aware.

  Q58  Dr Gibson: Are they worried?

  Professor Griffin: Yes, they are worried for their own health as well.

  Q59  Dr Gibson: So what about the undergraduate and the MSC student? In their training, whatever it is, do they get enough instruction in the health and safety problems? It always seemed to be in undergraduate practicals there was very little said about safety and health, whether it be chemistry, biology or whatever, and I am as guilty as anybody else, because you want to get on with the job, you have three hours to do it, and you do not want to spend a whole hour talking about the possible hazards when you want them to learn how to do it.

  Professor Griffin: Yes, I would entirely agree. There is not proper instruction on containment levels and risk, and, of course, practicals would not be going on with people using HIV.

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