Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)|
31 MARCH 2008
Q260 Dr Gibson: But you have every
confidence in them.
Professor Weiss: People who do
not actually handle virus and pipette them out themselves should
have a knowledge about containment of pathogens generally. The
danger is when the people in the laboratories suddenly lose their
funding. For instance, I lost my MRC funding with one month's
notice on 29 February so I should be closing my laboratory today
because tomorrow there is no funding. We have put emergency procedures
Q261 Dr Gibson: Are you going to
lie in and listen to Radio 4?
Professor Weiss: No, I will be
in Edinburgh at the SGM.
Q262 Dr Gibson: Are you saying that
the inspectors are amateurs?
Professor Weiss: No.
Q263 Dr Gibson: Real professionals,
do you think? Would they spot anything? Would they be able to
argue with you or with any of your staff?
Professor Weiss: Yes, I think
so. Their generic techniques in handling pathogens when you propagate
them in a laboratory, one does not differ very much from the other
with the exception of the prion diseases that you have already
Q264 Dr Gibson: Are there such things
as near misses in your work?
Professor Weiss: There are laboratory
accidents that do occur.
Q265 Dr Gibson: Such as?
Professor Weiss: Needlestick injuries,
so we do not take needles into our Category 3 laboratories and
we take the minimum of glass. We usually take plastic but, as
you know, you can cut yourself on a piece of paper or a bit of
Q266 Dr Gibson: Is that recorded
or should it be recorded?
Professor Weiss: That is recorded
and there is a system with HIV where, if there is an accident,
the laboratory person can go onto emergency anti-retroviral therapy.
We do not stock those drugs in the laboratory but we have a hotline
to the nearest HIV clinic which is in our university.
Q267 Dr Gibson: Does the biological
safety officer add up the near misses and present them to the
inspectors when they come?
Professor Weiss: Yes.
Q268 Dr Gibson: Give me an idea of
how many there are in a year.
Professor Weiss: In my 24 years
of working with HIV we have had one and one where the operator
thought she had a near miss but she had not. You could call that
two if you like.
Q269 Dr Gibson: In your experience
do you believe that some laboratories seek to cover them up? It
is an embarrassment after all. If they had 50 near misses in a
year because it is a sloppy laboratoryand there will be
one or two sloppy laboratories I guess somewherewould they
cover them up?
Professor Weiss: I am not aware
in my experience of an organisation or a laboratory covering up
but I can imagine that an individuala student working in
a laboratory or a young scientific workerwould feel that
that was damn stupid and conceivably would clear it up and maybe
not report. In my experience that has not happened.
Q270 Dr Gibson: Martin, in your experience
is there anything you would like to add to that?
Professor Shirley: I would like
to add that this is where the culture of an organisation is incredibly
important. You have your full risk assessment and operating systems
in place, but deeply embedded within the organisation is the culture
to do things right and to succeed and to be the best and to be
very professional. That is what you need through the laboratories
so that if mistakes are made they are recorded and everybody is
very honourable about it.
Q271 Dr Gibson: If they were anonymous
you might get more. Would you accept that? If people did not have
to say, "Ian Gibson, I cut my hand and I spilled some of
the viral fluid over it" or something, if I did not have
to put my name to it and just said that this had happened, is
Professor Shirley: I guess it
is a possibility, but the reality may be a little bit different.
I think with the right culture people are not afraid of coming
Professor Weiss: As has already
been mentioned you would have more than one person working in
a Category 3 laboratory at a time. An accident might not be realised
until a bit later. In the one incident that we had, the near miss,
a phial which was plastic not glass broke in a high speed centrifuge
because the wrong one was used in the centrifuge. You could say
that they were not trained properly but that kind of mis-judgment
Q272 Dr Gibson: What did you do to
prevent that happening again?
Professor Weiss: We actually excluded
that type of plastic phial from the laboratory altogether.
Q273 Dr Gibson: What do you think
about anonymous reporting? Do you not think that is feasible in
an environment like that?
Professor Shirley: I think it
is feasible but I think it is deeper than that. I think it is
a matter of culture within the laboratory.
Q274 Chairman: Michael, the HSE is
clearly going to have a much more significant role in terms of
inspection Level 3 and Level 4 containment facilities. Do they,
in your opinion, have sufficient expertise to be able to do that
or are they going to be entirely dependent on the likes of Robin
Mr Stephens: It depends what they
are going to be asked to inspect for. If it is biosafety or biological
containment, I have every confidence in the inspectors that I
have met over 30 years. If it is biosecurity then I think that
is a different matter.
Q275 Chairman: Why is it a different
Mr Stephens: It is a different
game, if you like. Biocontainment is about keeping the bugs in;
biosecurity, if you will forgive me, is about keeping the buggers
out and it is about ensuring that those who wish to misuse or
misappropriate pathogens cannot get at them. It is a different
discipline and that is where certainly these gentlemen and myself
would use the likes of NaCTSO and local counter terrorism security
Q276 Chairman: So we cannot leave
that to HSE. Would you agree with that?
Professor Shirley: I think that
is probably right. It is horses for courses. It is a specialised
activity, it is going to have to be done very professionally and
if it is outwith the HSE expertise then we will need to rely on
Q277 Dr Iddon: For running high containment
laboratories, do the funding organisations provide you with enough
money for the high operating costs of maintaining those facilities?
Obviously they need maintenance from time to time as we heard
from the previous panel.
Professor Shirley: I think the
long term funding is a critical issue. We have just been talking
about security checks and this is something that is also going
to layer on the cost for the future so this is something that
will add to the burden of a large organisation. I think what the
last speaker here was saying from the VLA is that we could end
up by having the most marvellous facilities which are highly secure
but without the funds to do the science on the inside. That is
the worry I have into the long term future, that we have to recognise
as a country that if we wish to have these facilitiesand
I believe passionately that we dothen they have to be properly
resourced to allow us to maintain the facilities, that they are
safe, they are state of the art and also they are able to deliver
the science as well. I think that is a recognition that has still
to be made.
Q278 Dr Iddon: That is a qualified
no. Professor Weiss?
Professor Weiss: It is very seldom
the case that there is enough funding to support everything that
is worthy of support.
Q279 Dr Iddon: These facilities are
rather special, are they not?
Professor Weiss: Yes, they are.
If we are talking about a national resource for animal pathogens
and zoonotic pathogensthe sort Martin was just talking
aboutthere absolutely needs to be long term funding. If
we are talking about the kind of work I do which is response made
funding it has to be damn good to get funded; it has to be imaginative,
innovative and not just a national security matter. The ways in
which you cost your research today with so-called full economic
costing with a portion coming from university central support,
the research part of the DIUS and from the research councils or
the medical research charities supporting the bulk of it, the
onus is on the scientist who is making the application to cost
it properly. Sometimes we find that it gets scratched away or
these extra costs are not justified so you have to keep bashing
away, saying that these are necessary.