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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-229)


31 MARCH 2008

  Q220  Dr Iddon: Turning to universities, do you know of any universities who have asked for a Category 4 facility on their site—again we need not name sites—or is the general feeling that if universities need to handle Category 4 viruses there are enough facilities around the country for them to share other Category 4 laboratories or Category 3 if necessary?

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: I know of at least one university which is considering an application or has already submitted an application in that regard. There are decisions that have to be made as part of the forward planning process and this is so important. We have seen an increase in categorisation of pathogens where the category of pathogens, particularly of human pathogens, is always escalating because, quite rightly, we want to operate to the highest possible safety standards for operators and any release. In certain situations it is interesting but also quite good that universities might also be forward planning and thinking that that might become a requirement in the future. Yes, it does happen; yes, there are European universities that have such facilities on site as well in very major conurbations around Europe although I obviously cannot name them directly.

  Q221  Mr Cawsey: I would like to ask you something we have already asked other people and have had completely contradictory advice so we would be genuinely interested to know what you would say about this and it is about training for those working with dangerous pathogens. Should training be provided locally or should there be a nationally prescribed set of competencies, perhaps linked to certification? If so, who would run that?

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: When you are looking at a Category 3 or a Category 4 facility—I have actually worked in one for the science I have undertaken so I am pretty well aware of Category 3 facilities firsthand—what is really important is that you have a system where you have biological safety officers who are a very important group of people who regulate, often within an organisation, how safety matters are actually managed. You need a facility manager to make sure that everybody is competent and you need the actual operators on site as well as principal investigators who may or may not be directly involved in the work concerned. The bottom line is that all of them have to be trained but they all have to be trained to a different extent in the different elements that are necessary to operate safely within this environment. At the present time the MRC for biological safety officers provides the only formal training course and we have a lot coming in from industry and elsewhere to the courses that we organise. I understand that we are in discussion with ISTR and this may well transfer and be part of the course that they are contemplating in this area. I think it would be helpful to have a system whereby there is certification of people's training at different levels. However, there is something we must not overlook and that is where the primacy of the responsibility for the safety of the individuals actually participating and working in such an environment actually resides. I can only give you a personal anecdote, but if I were running a Category 3 facility I do not care how many bits of paperwork a technician or a member of staff actually has, until they prove to me they are competent and are not endangering themselves or others I will not sign off that individual to actually operate within that sector. Yes, certification goes part of the way in showing general competence, but I still believe that over and above that the people primarily responsible have to take the responsibility and can assure themselves that that person is not a danger to himself or to others.

  Q222  Mr Cawsey: Some people think a blank canvas is the best starting point.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: Some might, but I think you have to have a level of competence and knowledge; you have to understand to a greater or lesser extent. A technician may not need to understand the regulatory framework in quite the same detail as a biological safety officer but to have no knowledge of that I believe would not be very helpful in the current climate or actually in any good regulatory climate. I would be in favour of having core training programmes that would be available to these individuals, but at the end of the day the sign off for somebody actually running and operating and working within such a facility would still have to be the responsibility of the investigator proposing to undertake this work. You cannot escape that. That would be the view that we would take.

  Q223  Mr Cawsey: Is that generally agreed?

  Dr Stephenson: I would fully support the MRC's position. In fact in the Health Protection Agency we run a cascade system of training for pathogens. Everybody coming into the Agency starts with a training package at Category 2 and then up to Category 3 and only those people who have been fully trained in Category 3 and have substantial experience—I am talking about several years' experience—would then be allowed into Category 4. Paper is a useful start but we operate exactly the same principle that the people who are operating within those facilities are always trained alongside a trained and experienced operator and in fact in the Category 4 facilities—and in fact most of the Category 3 facilities—nobody ever operates alone, you are always operating with other people. We too run formal training courses both for the NHS and for commercial companies and we will be building in the very near future a purpose built training facility on the site at Porton Down to train people right up to Category 4 in biological containment and emergency response and a lot of other things as well. I think our position is pretty much in parallel with the answers already given.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: Just to add one point, it is not just the training, it is maintaining CPD. We need to make sure that people are current because the regulations are changing and the pathogens you handle are changing. There is a difference between the generic training that you can give and specific training which has to be given on site. Every one of these facilities handles different pathogens. If you are working in a prion facility, as Dr Gibson has already raised, you have to have very specific training and frankly there is only one place you can get that in the United Kingdom at the present time and that is why the sign off has to be there. It is a mixture of generic and specific and I think to be reasonably well certified in the generic would be a help but that does not absolve anybody from the very specific training that is required.

  Q224  Dr Gibson: There is a view that new diseases are going to creep up on us. Are we ready for that?

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: One cannot argue that that might be one direction. At the present time hopefully that is not the majority view, but I think disease will always remain a risk, particularly now that we have seen that they can jump species in the way that they can and it is something we have to keep on board all the time. It has happened once. Could I guarantee it would not happen again? Of course not.

  Dr Stephenson: There are new biologies out there which we are unfamiliar with so we must be prepared for the unexpected.

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: We also have to be careful as to how agents are handled within these facilities and there the regulations are very important. We know, for example, flu can jump if you get multiple infections because of the very nature of its genome. A great deal of care and training is required specific to the pathogens and not just the prions, although prions are a very good specific example.

  Q225  Chairman: We keep moving to prions but can I come back to trainees? Dr Stephenson, do you feel that we have sufficient numbers of trained staff at Category 3 and Category 4 in the UK?

  Dr Stephenson: I can only speak with any authority for the HPA and at Category 3 that is certainly true. I am not so confident about Category 4. We have only three or four people in the HPA who are fully trained and experienced to Category 4 and we have another five who are coming through the process. They are coming through that training process but they are not sufficiently experienced to operate alone or to be in charge of a programme.

  Q226  Chairman: Chris, do you agree?

  Professor Thorns: On the animal side at the VLA we have enough people at SAPO 3 and ACDP 3. With regard ACDP 4 we are looking ahead and we have a person spending six months in the United States—Texas, I believe—looking at some of the ACDP 4 facilities there.

  Q227  Chairman: Sir Leszek?

  Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: Actually I think we have some shortage and I think the shortage is because we have to think of the totality of what this means for the UK. We have a very important pharma sector that is going to be also engaging in this and they are going to require trained personnel, particularly if categorisation of pathogens continues to be increased. From my point of view I think the areas that are really of concern to me are trained managers and biological safety officers to ensure that we have actually got the safety profile. I would like to see an increase in the numbers of people we have with these capabilities built into the system. I think we do need more staff, particularly in those two senior positions. We will train operators as need arises and that can be done in this area, but I think it is these others who have to take the broader purview of running these facilities. I do think we need some expansion.

  Q228  Chairman: Is it a priority for you, Mr Visscher?

  Mr Visscher: I think the availability of expertise is thin in some areas. I think Professor Shirley will be able to give you a better answer to this, but in areas of blue tongue where IAH leads the world it is a very small team of people in practice who are holding that level of expertise.

  Dr Gibson: Mr Visscher, do you think with migratory birds carrying these things about the world? That is what every government minister seems to say when you ask them. Do you believe that? Are you having a laugh at government ministers?

  Q229  Chairman: We want a definitive answer from you; your whole future depends on it!

  Mr Visscher: You are of course addressing the one person on this panel who is not a qualified scientist.

  Chairman: You need a policy maker to make these decisions. This session comes to an end amid laughter and we thank very much indeed Professor Chris Thorns, Dr John Stephenson, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Mr Steve Visscher. We are very grateful to you.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 25 June 2008