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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 230-239)


31 MARCH 2008

  Q230 Chairman: Good afternoon and we welcome very much indeed Professor Martin Shirley, the Director of the Institute for Animal Health, Professor Robin Weiss, the President for the Society for General Microbiology and Mr Michael Stephens from the Institute of Safety in Technology and Research. Welcome to you all. Professor Shirley, we have heard an awful lot about the Callaghan report, about the regulatory framework for animal and human pathogens coming together being a logical step. Do you agree? Why was this not suggested before if it is such a logical step?

  Professor Shirley: In answer to your first question the answer is yes, we do agree. This is a discussion we have had at the Institute. We agree for a number of reasons, many of which have been said in the previous session. It clarifies and straightens out the current arrangements, ie it will remove any conflict of interest from the current regulator, which is a very important point. What we would like to see is a regulator that is properly resourced and we have commented that the HSE will be resourced in that way. There will be staff with a lot of expertise. I think we also look forward to some of the transparency and consistency across a site such as the one we have at Pirbright. For a number of reasons we are welcoming this.

  Q231  Chairman: You have not answered the question as to why it was not suggested before?

  Professor Shirley: I really do not know what it has not been discussed before. It probably takes something like the incident at Pirbright to concentrate minds and to make this a catalyst of change.

  Q232  Chairman: Michael Stevens, in terms of safety clearly we are moving—I think everybody has accepted the Callaghan recommendations—to a system which is based on risk assessment and notification as the best solution. However, should there be permission required before anyone starts work on any of these pathogens or is that quite sufficient in your view?

  Mr Stephens: I think it has worked exceedingly well up until now and it is fully sufficient. I do not see the necessity to go towards, let us say, laboratory certification or individual certification, for example, as they do in other countries.

  Q233  Chairman: You think it is perfectly sufficient.

  Mr Stephens: Yes.

  Q234  Chairman: Do you, Professor Weiss?

  Professor Weiss: Yes.

  Q235  Chairman: So we did not have a problem last summer at Pirbright.

  Professor Weiss: Nothing is perfectly sufficient; yes, we did have a problem last summer. I should declare an interest here, I used to be Chair of the governing body of the Institute of Animal Health but stepped down well before that but I am familiar with the situation.

  Q236  Chairman: Are you satisfied that the current regulations—the regulations post-Callaghan that are coming in—are watertight or are there any gaps we should perhaps flag up in our report?

  Professor Shirley: I think they are probably watertight because the HSE and Defra are certainly working well together and they are spending quite a lot of time in our company as well. I think there is a very good dialogue on the ground now to make this transition period work before we go into the final phase.

  Q237  Chairman: What about keeping inventories and missing pathogens and things of that nature? Are they all watertight?

  Professor Shirley: The Institute for Animal Health operates to a code of practice for research and clearly keeping stocks under control is part of that inventory system. I suspect that no system is ever going to be watertight because one can never legislate for malicious behaviour, but on the whole it is now done as well as it can be.

  Q238  Chairman: Professor Weiss, what about the classification of dangerous pathogens? We have received some evidence that there is some confusion at times about what constitutes a particularly dangerous pathogen at a particular level. Do you feel further work needs to be done on that or are you perfectly satisfied as well that that is okay?

  Professor Weiss: I think there is a danger of incremental creep that Sir Leszek has already touched on. It is of crucial importance to keep the really dangerous pathogens controlled. If we keep upping pathogens that can be dangerous in certain individuals or in certain situations up to Category 3 and then Category 4 then we are going to get clogged up and we need to keep an eye on this. It has already been mentioned that if blue tongue becomes endemic in the UK then it becomes less dangerous in containment in the laboratories because it is already out there. This is a situation that changes over time and I would be concerned that we do not keep upping the ante but we do a proper risk assessment with the situation at that time for individual pathogens.

  Q239  Chairman: Do you share that, Michael?

  Mr Stephens: I do. I think there is a real danger with this creep, as Professor Weiss has said, that pathogens that are not truly Category 4 can creep into Category 4 and dilute the risk perception on individual scientists working on it.

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