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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 173-179)


31 MARCH 2008

  Q173 Chairman: Good afternoon and could I welcome everyone to the penultimate session of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's sub-committee on biosecurity in the UK research laboratories. I welcome very much indeed our first panel of witnesses, Professor Chris Thorns, the Science Director of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, Dr John Stephenson, the Director of Research and Development at the Health Protection Agency, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council and Mr Steve Visscher, the interim Chief Executive at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. We are pleased to have you with us this afternoon. The Callaghan inquiry recommended a unified regulatory framework for work on dangerous pathogens. Do you all agree that that was the right way forward?

  Professor Thorns: The VLA and myself do agree that this is a welcome development. The Veterinary Laboratories Agency has a large number of laboratories both at SAPO level and ACDP level and we welcome this change. We feel that it removes any potential conflicts of interest that existed up to now. We are, as I am sure many others are, aware of some subtle differences between the two schemes in that both schemes ensure total separation of the organism to the environment in any possible way but of course with ACDP you are as much concerned about separating the operator from the organism where as with SAPO you are not quite so concerned because it does not cause disease in humans. Nevertheless we feel it is a welcome change and we look forward to working with the Health and Safety Executive under a harmonised scheme.

  Q174  Chairman: Chris, did you make any representations for this sort of arrangement before Pirbright?

  Professor Thorns: We were aware of the separation, indeed some of my veterinary colleagues at the VLA were SAPO inspectors seconded by Defra but I think as an organisation VLA felt that the inspectors and indeed Defra inspectors were under quite a lot of resource pressure at times.

  Q175  Chairman: So the answer is no.

  Professor Thorns: The answer is no, yes.

  Q176  Chairman: John, are you similarly robust in your support of the Callaghan recommendations?

  Dr Stephenson: Indeed so. I have discussed this with my colleagues at Porton where most of our Category 4 facilities are and we support it for three reasons. Those of us who have worked in these facilities have found the slight differences between the SAPO 4 regulations and the ACDP 4 regulations confusing sometimes and difficult to move from one to the other. I think in terms of clarity from the workers that will be welcomed. Secondly, recent history says that most of the novel human pathogens are in fact zoonoses and it makes a lot of sense therefore to merge the regulatory framework for animal pathogens and human pathogens. Also we welcome the recommendation that the regulatory authority is distanced from the authority which is responsible for running those laboratories. I think that will be a welcome move which we would strongly support.

  Q177  Chairman: You are perfectly confident that this unified framework to regulate animal and human pathogens, as recommended by Callaghan, is the right way forward.

  Dr Stephenson: In principle; I have not seen the details of those recommendations.

  Q178  Chairman: "In principle" worries me because it means there must be something which is lurking in the back of your brain which says there is a problem here.

  Dr Stephenson: No, I only say "in principle" because I have not seen the final details of those recommendations. I can see no real reason why they should not work.

  Q179  Dr Gibson: When you talk about pathogens, do you include prions in that as well? Do you just lump them altogether?

  Dr Stephenson: I would not lump them altogether particularly in terms of the decontamination processes because I think, as some of you know, prions are particularly resistant to some of the chemical inactivants and are also resistant to thermal inactivation which is our major mechanism of inactivating conventional pathogens. I think special recommendations would have to be made—and indeed are already in place—certainly for handling human prions which are particularly resistant to both chemical and thermal inactivation.

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