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

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 in place.

  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 raised.

  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 plastic.

  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 laboratory—and there will be one or two sloppy laboratories I guess somewhere—would 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 individual—a student working in a laboratory or a young scientific worker—would 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 that possible?

  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 forward.

  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 can happen.

  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 and Martin?

  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 mater?

  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 advisers.

  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 those experts.

  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 facilities—and I believe passionately that we do—then 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 pathogens—the sort Martin was just talking about—there 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.

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