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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)


31 MARCH 2008

  Q240  Chairman: You feel there should be a sufficiently rigorous risk assessment process which should avoid that happening.

  Mr Stephens: Absolutely, yes.

  Q241  Chairman: Martin, we heard from the previous panel that a common agreement to have all the regulatory organisations brought together with a common point of entry was something which they broadly supported. Is that something you would broadly support?

  Professor Shirley: I think it is. The Pirbright experience has clearly shaped my judgment on many things and the more uniformity and standardisation we have in these areas the better, quite frankly.

  Professor Weiss: For laboratory research yes, but we cannot lump humans and animals together all the way along the line. If there is an outbreak of a dangerous pathogen in animals we cull animals, but we do not cull humans. If we are talking about laboratory containment, yes, that would make sense, otherwise we have to use common sense.

  Q242  Mr Cawsey: Martin, I want to talk, as I did to the previous panel, about the outbreak at Pirbright last year which is of course something you went through. Looking back at it now, was it a failure of the regulatory system or was it a failure of the people operating the site?

  Professor Shirley: I think a lot of words have been spoken about foot and mouth 2007 and I think probably Iain Anderson got it about right in looking at a number of areas where perhaps there were responsibilities. The whole of Pirbright was complex in terms of its regulation, the licensing arrangements, the lack of transparency between what was a government funded research laboratory handling small amounts of virus and an industrial pharmaceutical company next door. I think the reasons were multifactorial and certainly we were not sitting idly before the outbreak not proactively looking at the biosecurity arrangements and looking at risk assessment for the Institute. There was no clear transparency of the arrangements with SAPO licence vis-a"-vis the IAH and Merial next door. What surprised us—you heard this from the earlier session—was the lack of consistency in terms of what was permitted under the SAPO licence. Certainly we tried to get to grips with that to find out what the conditions were. We have never been told that so our risk assessment was based on the fact that next door the amount of virus going into the drains was close to zero. I think we were as shocked as everybody else was to discover that with some of the non-validated processing of virus production up to one thousand million virus particles were being discharged from a production batch of vaccine. That was very illustrative of the complexity of the situation at Pirbright and I think there were other factors at play as well, including—as you saw in the Anderson report—the complexity of governance and ownership. All these things came into play with some very long leases underpinning some of this, going back almost 20 years. It was a situation that probably needed to be reviewed objectively and more timely than it in fact had been done.

  Q243  Mr Cawsey: Do you think the introduction of a single regulatory framework under the HSE would be sufficient to ensure that such an outbreak does not happen again?

  Professor Shirley: I think there have been a lot of changes since August and certainly there has been further layering of biosecurity, for example, in the Institute for Animal Health and covering a number of areas. We certainly welcome the new regulatory body because what will happen is that it will provide a further kick-start to the way we work; it will bring consistency with the animals and the human pathogens which I think is welcome; it will bring in another standard. I think there will be real positives coming out of the lessons learned from Pirbright.

  Q244  Mr Cawsey: Do other members of the panel think that as well?

  Mr Stephens: Yes, certainly.

  Professor Weiss: Yes.

  Q245  Mr Cawsey: Martin, in a previous panel we had quite a good discussion about the re-development programme and who is going to pay for what and if they ever will. I thought you might welcome the opportunity to tell the Committee how important you feel that investment in the Pirbright site is.

  Professor Shirley: How long have you got? I think this is really, really, really important as a national facility and what the UK needs, I believe, is a proper facility focussed on these increasingly important pathogens of livestock, facilities dedicated to these pathogens such as foot and mouth or blue tongue or African swine fever and many others which are now coming to our shores. This facility has to be properly funded into the longer term. Professor Thorns was talking about the capital cost, but what I want to see is a facility devoted to animal health research which is not necessarily focussed just on the exotics but brings together for the benefit of the UK fundamental, strategic and applied sciences around important pathogens but also bring together the important biologies around that. That must be properly funded in terms of state of the art facilities which I think our science deserves. The Institute for Animal Health is world-class but we are not operating in world-class facilities. We need to have proper capital funding but beyond that we have to have clear transparency over the running of a facility such as the IAH in the national interest. We are serving the national interest and we are protecting the UK against a number of disease incursions which are in fact coming to our shores more and more frequently. It is absolutely vital that we have this facility, that it is properly funded and it is funded into the future so we are not in any way living from hand to mouth.

  Q246  Mr Cawsey: Do you therefore agree with the Anderson idea then?

  Professor Shirley: I have no problem with the Anderson review. What I would want, as Director of the Institute for Animal Health, is a national facility wherein there is complete clarity over governance and funding and it is assured into the future so everybody can plan effectively over the next five to ten years.

  Q247  Chairman: We are not going to get that, are we?

  Professor Shirley: I hope we are going to get it. The worry would be that we do not get it and we continue to live trying to run a national facility with some of the funding coming in on a one yearly basis, which is only negotiated into the start of the next financial year or into the current financial year. I believe we have to have this long term-ism because we are dealing with long term diseases. We only need look at the blue tongue story to understand exactly where the science is coming from and this goes back maybe a decade to the recognition of climate change and global warning when the Institute was in a position to deliver science through to Defra to help bring the 2007 outbreak under control, be in a position to inform government as to how to deal with the impending epidemic in 2008.

  Q248  Dr Gibson: Robin, you have done some work on retroviruses and they are a special category of virus. Are there special dangers perhaps or special hazards? Have you ever worried about any implications or working with that and the health of the people who have worked with you?

  Professor Weiss: The Aids pandemic is in a special category; malignancies caused by retroviruses too. In terms of handling them as dangerous pathogens, they are not that special. They are an example, as we put in our evidence, where the HSE regulations for Category 3 laboratories—they are usually Category 3 but they are bit lower in the United States—predicated on engineering and air flow and the dangers of needlestick injuries like working with hepatitis B and other human pathogens. When we first started working on HIV—it was newly discovered a few months earlier in Paris—we were very nervous. We devised a test that went into the blood banks.

  Q249  Dr Gibson: Was this pre-Category 4 facilities?

  Professor Weiss: It was about 2.5; it has never been Category 4, it has been Category 3. You just have to get up and do it. We were very nervous. We were gowned up and in there and we used to test ourselves every three months because we already knew how it was transmitted—by blood and by sex—but we did not want to pass it on if we caught it.

  Q250  Dr Gibson: How did the HSE behave in this whole period of time? What was their attitude to it?

  Professor Weiss: This goes back 24 years. They were a mixture of being very helpful and covering their own backs.

  Q251  Dr Gibson: And now?

  Professor Weiss: There is a wealth of experience now. We helped to train officers within HSE and now they help to train us.

  Q252  Dr Gibson: How often did you see them and how often do you see them now? Has there been a frequency change?

  Professor Weiss: Yes, less often.

  Q253  Dr Gibson: Could you be more specific on that?

  Professor Weiss: Not without going back over the records, no.

  Q254  Dr Gibson: Do they come once a year, once every ten years, once every 24 years?

  Professor Weiss: You mean to my laboratory?

  Q255  Dr Gibson: Yes.

  Professor Weiss: About once a year, or communicate once a year.

  Q256  Dr Gibson: They see you once a year.

  Professor Weiss: Less than once a year they actually visit on site; more like once every two years I would think.

  Q257  Dr Gibson: Do you know they are coming?

  Professor Weiss: They have a perfect right to arrive unannounced.

  Q258  Dr Gibson: Do they?

  Professor Weiss: No, but our own biological safety officer does.

  Q259  Dr Gibson: Who is the biological safety officer? How trained are they? Have they worked with the viruses?

  Professor Weiss: No.

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