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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)


31 MARCH 2008

  Q200  Mr Cawsey: Chris, do you have anything to add to that?

  Professor Thorns: The VLA is an important stakeholder in this because our virology department is co-locating to the Pirbright site. We very much welcome this but we have similar concerns. We feel that the cost is spiralling almost out of control in terms of capital investment. We have concerns on the effect that would have on reducing the scope of the project but also, as Steve said, we are most concerned that any future CSR bid includes the running costs of these organisations. For me one of the major lessons learned from Pirbright is that these facilities cost an awful lot to run and maintain and often organisations like ourselves are given the capital investment but then everybody forgets the extra money needed to run these facilities such as expensive maintenance costs and annual capital charges.

  Q201  Chairman: You are not even being given the capital funding. It appears to me as Chairman of this sub-Committee that out of site out of mind yet again. We had a major problem last summer; everyone runs around like the proverbial, everybody accuses everybody. We have X number of reports which have come from Callaghan et al and here we are saying nine months later that we cannot put the capital funding together even though the site at Pirbright is like a building site at the moment. Do you share my frustration?

  Professor Thorns: The VLA does share your frustration. It is common knowledge that VLA, whilst very much welcoming this, we have always preferred—as the Anderson review says—a complete merger between VLA and IAH in a new organisation with a new identity, but nevertheless we fully support this. We, like Professor Martin Shirley, are finding that more and more of our budget is going to fixed costs like the maintenance budget and less and less to the science.

  Q202  Mr Cawsey: You mentioned Anderson and the idea that there should be National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Is the future of the IAH now decided or is this still up for grabs and, if so, would that be a desirable move?

  Mr Visscher: In terms of being decided, no is the firm answer. There is one other review which is on-going at the moment which was commissioned by BBSRC from a pool chaired by Sir John Beringer. This was to look at the risk management funding and future governance of the Institute of Animal Health. In that context it follows on very much from the Anderson review which, as you say, is suggesting a single institute for infectious disease. We feel that is a move in the right direction and, as to the detail of how that institute is put in place, we very much hope the work of the Beringer Panel will be able to help us find some good solutions. Professor Beringer presented his interim conclusions to the BBRSC Council in February and he will report formally next week. I am sure that is a report that can be made available to the Committee if you are interested. Some of the key messages I expect will flow from the Beringer report are the importance of having a stable, sustainable funding stream with a profile of three to five years forward look so there is continuity in funding. The governance arrangements do need to be clarified and there are some suggestions emerging for an interim way through the IAH governing body, inviting BBSRC to act as a corporate trustee in the short term pending long term arrangements. I think Beringer will also propose that there is a clear animal health and welfare strategy for the science related to this area. That is something that is missing at the moment and we regard it as very good advice. In the longer term I think he may well float the idea of bringing together a new agency that pulls together the various interests both for surveillance and research and tackling outbreaks into an expert group. If that were to happen then one model would be for that expert body, with its stable funding stream, to be responsible for managing and overseeing the new institute with funders such as BBSRC providing funding on a reliable basis.

  Q203  Mr Cawsey: It strikes me that we are perhaps putting the cart before the horse here. Should we really not be deciding whether or not we have the IAH or we have a National Institute before we get too bogged down with the capital and the revenue funding of it. We seem to be going down one line at Pirbright, trying to get the additional funds to make that re-build work, but you seem to be saying that you need something else anyway. Should we not make that decision first?

  Mr Visscher: I think all these components have to come together. The funding which has been going into this area from the BBSRC has been rising and is set to rise because we recognise it as an area of huge importance. I know from talking with colleagues in Defra today, the Defra budget is under some pressure and that poses real challenges going forward both in terms of a long term view and the ability to commit when there is still on-going funding uncertainty. I think all the components of us being sure on the infrastructure and the funding for that, the running costs and clear governance and a clear strategy for the whole area are absolutely crucial to the way forward. We believe we have a real opportunity here to put these new arrangements in place which will serve the UK well for the future.

  Q204  Chairman: We have had reference to this lack of certainty over funding in terms of the replacement for Pirbright and the Institute of Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency, et cetera. Do you think we have sufficient capacity in the UK for research on dangerous pathogens now and in the future?

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: That is a good question and it is one I posed originally to ensure that we created a group with the Health Protection Agency to examine how much capacity and what is the projected requirement for capacity for the very reasons already identified, which are that the costs of running these facilities are extremely high and we have to make sure we use them effectively. I am looking forward to receiving that particular report. For the work the MRC is currently undertaking, there is sufficient capacity. We would obviously invest in more if there was a greater call for it. At the present time our Category 4 and Category 3 facilities deal with the capacity that we require as a research council.

  Q205  Chairman: Dr Stephenson, do we have sufficient capacity in your view, particularly at Level 3 and Level 4 containment facilities?

  Dr Stephenson: At the moment, if all the facilities which we have in hand are capable of running at full capacity I believe we do, but that is a very big "if". As Sir Leszek has pointed out, the MRC and ourselves are running a review right now chaired by Professor George Griffin, Chairman of ACDP, to find out exactly what the capacity is and what the future requirements are.

  Q206  Chairman: Do you not find it strange that we do not know that? The Government does actually not know that. We found it difficult finding out how many laboratories there actually were and where they were situated. Do you not find it strange that we now have to have George doing a full inquiry to try to find out whether we have sufficient capacity?

  Dr Stephenson: I think that we have sufficient capacity for what we want to do at the moment. At Porton we are in the position that our current facilities are ageing and that is why we have a site development plan which I think you saw on your visit a few weeks ago. We are looking ahead and at the moment we are finding that because those facilities are ageing the downtime for refurbishment and maintenance is getting longer and longer and longer. At the moment we are just about okay but looking into the future—which is what this review is focussed on—we want to ensure that we have capacity. Crystal ball gazing is difficult and therefore we want to include as many people in that as possible. We have a variety of issues to consider. In the last 20 years there have been 60 new human pathogens which have been discovered, some of them with fundamentally different biological properties—as Dr Gibson pointed out for the prions—where we cannot use our standard inactivation procedures so we have to have different inactivation procedures. With global warming coming on the scene as well there will be more pathogens coming into this country which we do not have the facilities to handle at the moment. We want to look to the future and that is what this review is about. If we do it now then hopefully we will not be wrong footed.

  Q207  Chairman: Professor Thorns, let us just say that there is a huge expansion of blue tongue, the virus really starts to spread. There are 40 million sheep in the UK and if we get the sort of outbreak that is quite possible, do we have the capacity to deal with that?

  Professor Thorns: I think we do.

  Q208  Chairman: At the same time African horse sickness suddenly starts to appear.

  Professor Thorns: I would not want to see an explosion of CL 3 and CL 4 facilities in this country; I would rather see the current facilities maintained and updated properly. IAH and VLA working together have demonstrated that we can deal with large animal disease crises such as foot and mouth disease and blue tongue and I think we should focus on the facilities that we have, making sure that we have not just the facilities but the skills and expertise of the experts in dealing with that. For me Professor Griffin's review will be extremely informative.

  Q209  Chairman: Should we have one strategic organisation that looks after all Level 4 animal and human containment laboratories so there is one organisation that pulls all that together? Is that your solution?

  Professor Thorns: No, but I think there should be a strategic overview where people can interrogate a single database to identify where those facilities are in the UK. I think it is more about smarter using of what we have and maintaining to the top notch quality what we have.

  Q210  Chairman: Between your two organisations are you quite capable of doing this? Do you speak to each other?

  Dr Stephenson: Indeed we do. In fact there has been a major new grant on pandemic flu which is funded by the Department of Health, and peer review carried out by the Medical Research Council which has substantial input from both the Health Protection Agency and our Centre for Infections and from the VLA laboratories at Weybridge. We work very closely together. I sit on the Statutory and Exotic Viruses Committee for the VLA and there are many, many cross-fertilisations there. I think there is a difference between setting up a common regulatory framework; I think that is viable and highly desirable. To set up one enormous organisation to cover everything I think would be too big; the demands on the veterinary community are different from the demands on the human community and that would be too large to be workable. We need to continue to work closely together as we are doing at the moment.

  Q211  Chairman: Let us discuss human pathogens in large animals. There was going to be a new facility at Pirbright which was going to deal with that area of research; this has now been shelved. Does that mean that we do not regard that as a threat? Or is it purely because UK plc can no longer afford to have these high level facilities?

  Professor Thorns: I am sure you will ask Martin Shirley afterwards. My understanding was that there was never to be an ACDP 4 large animal facility in the new Pirbright programme. Currently there are plans for a small research laboratory and a small animal facility for working on mice and other small animals. I have to question whether we need a large animal facility for ACDP 4 in this country. I think we would need to consider facilities in Europe and elsewhere.

  Q212  Chairman: As far as the human health research community goes you feel there is sufficient level for facilities and therefore you would not be looking for a new one with any new facilities.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: At the present time what is important is that we actually maintain the facilities that we have got, bearing in mind the specific needs. I would like to come back to the example that you gave about blue tongue becoming endemic in the United Kingdom. What would happen then is almost certainly the categorisation of blue tongue would also drop down and therefore you could handle it in facilities that are much lower than Category 3 and Category 4. What is really important with Category 3 and Category 4 is to be able to predict how many of these facilities we require in order to handle those rare and very dangerous pathogens. Over and above that we must make sure we have the right security systems around those as they are developed. That is why I say that at the present time the MRC is quite confident with the capacity that we have got. We are also confident about expanding that capacity within the experimental frameworks in which we operate. When you get into the large questions, that is precisely why we joined with HPA to carry out this review.

  Q213  Dr Iddon: To carry on the Chairman's line of questioning, could I ask you whether it would be possible to carry out a post mortem, if it proved necessary, on either a large animal or a complete human being in any of these Category 4 facilities, assuming it was a Category 4 virus?

  Dr John Stephenson: In terms of human beings post mortems would not be carried out in the Category 4 research facilities but we have one high containment hospital at Coppetts Wood and we are developing another high containment hospital on the Royal Victoria Infirmary site at Newcastle. At Coppetts Wood there is the possibility to carry out a post mortem on a whole human body but not in research facilities, they are not designed to do that and that would not be the appropriate place to do it.

  Q214  Dr Iddon: What about animals?

  Professor Thorns: In animals there is very limited facility to deal with post mortems at Category 4 level.

  Q215  Chairman: Is there any?

  Professor Thorns: I do not believe there is any in this country. That particular situation will often be dealt with in situ where the animals may well be incinerated or buried depending on the local risk assessments.

  Q216  Dr Iddon: Is it not considered necessary by the professionals to have such facilities for animals?

  Professor Thorns: It is not my particular expertise but nobody has come to me yet to say that we need large animal Category 4 facilities.

  Q217  Dr Iddon: I think I have seen photographs of one such facility in Germany.

  Professor Thorns: Yes.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: Could I just add one thing? Where it is a Category 4 pathogen for animal transmission alone, I would be in favour if we require this sort of pathology, especially where the safety of the operator is a concerned. Where there is a possibility of transmission between species, particularly to the operator—then there is a need for such a Category 4 facility. I do not think anyone would be implying that we would carry out such a post mortem in the field and put operators themselves at risk.

  Q218  Dr Iddon: Let me turn now to the location of Category 3 and Category 4 facilities. We obviously cannot give the positions of where they are at the moment, but are they in the right places at the moment or is there any consideration being given to perhaps putting one where one is thought necessary but absent now?

  Professor Thorns: For me I think the location of Category 3 and Category 4 laboratories is part of an overall risk assessment. It is one important component. There are other equally important components which include availability of scientific and support expertise, the availability of maintenance staff, the closeness to emergency services and other support teams and communication links. Also what is very important is getting the right builders and designers in the first place. For me the location does not always have to be in the middle of a city or a suburban area; it is part of the risk assessment. Personally I do not have a problem with a Category 4 facility sited in a fairly highly densely population provided the risk assessments are transparent and have been carried out properly.

  Q219  Dr Iddon: Is that the general view or do other panel members dissent from that? First of all, are they in the right place? Should we have them in large cities? We have met some controversy about this from other people giving evidence and everybody knows, Sir Leszek, that your organisation is thinking of bringing one into central London, although there are, we are told facilities in central London now.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: There are and I would just repeat my previous comments in relation to this. At the present time, as I stated at a previous meeting of the Committee, we have not put in a specific proposal in this regard. We are awaiting the considerations of a scientific committee to determine whether that science is actually necessary on that site and obviously before going further full security and other requirements would have to be considered. It is very important that we are not pre-judging the need or otherwise of such a facility as I made clear on a previous occasion.

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