Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-298)|
31 MARCH 2008
Q280 Dr Iddon: Michael, looking at
it from a safety point of view, what is your opinion?
Mr Stephens: From the safety point
of view but also the on-going costs, I was discussing this very
issue of on-going costing with some colleagues from the States
at a conference last week and it seemed to be a reasonable rule
of thumb there that although a Category 4 facility, for example,
may occupy one per cent of the floor space of a laboratory building
it may actually eat up up to ten per cent of the on-going maintenance
and utility cost annually of the whole building and that is really
Q281 Dr Iddon: We queried the previous
panel on the capacity that we have presently for high containment
work, Category 3 and Category 4. Is it your view also that we
have adequate capacity at the moment? Do you agree with members
of the previous panel that there are gaps, for example for handling
large animals with dangerous viruses contained within them?
Professor Weiss: I think there
is just about capacity but I think some of the plant is ageing
as I have seen at HPA and IAH and elsewhere. That is why this
new build at Pirbright is so important for animal work. With the
increasing number of emerging pathogenseven those that
are genuinely high categorywe have to be aware that we
can handle them. I think research scientists should also be inventive
and just as there has been pressure, for instance, to reduce the
total amount of animal procedures to get more in vitro where possible,
we can try to do that sort of thing when handling dangerous pathogens.
There is some work that currently has to be done at CL 4 with
avian influenza, for instance, but it can be done with disabled
versions of the virus. There is some work going on in my laboratory
in collaboration with both the VLA and with the HPA where we have
invented a little techniqueit is not rocket sciencethat
allows certain tests that would otherwise have to be done at CL
4 to be done at CL 2. To what extent that would relieve pressure
on the very high category laboratories remains to be seen because
it takes an awful long time to go through the regulatory procedures
and to get permission from the WHO and OIEthe international
agenciesto say that this test can be accepted. I think
those approaches are merited and we need to be inventive in asking
what we can take out safely that will not reduce our knowledge
level but would increase our knowledge level.
Q282 Chairman: The little bit I do
not understandit goes back to the previous question that
Brian Iddon asked as wellis this issue of how do you actually
maintain in terms of revenue costing very, very expensive facilities
and whether you are going to use then once or ten times is irrelevant,
is it not? You still have to maintain those facilities at a very
high order, and the question is where should that cost fall? It
clearly cannot fall in terms of full economic cost on a particular
grant application because the cost of that would be extraordinary
in terms of that application. Who should maintain these facilities?
The problem that has arisen at Pirbrightit may well happen
in terms of human pathogens in the futureindicates to us
as a Committee that there ought to be some plan or some vision
as to how in fact you provide and then maintain these laboratories
so that they are there when they are necessary. Is that an unreasonable
Professor Weiss: I think there
may be a difference between CL 4 which have to be few and far
between and national if not international, and Category 3 which
can be built locally in universities and maintained if there is
a sufficient body of people in that institution who need to use
them and have a good chance of funding. Again it depends on how
much you invest. I visited the Cambridge Veterinary School a couple
of weeks ago; they are putting in a Category 3 laboratory with
steel doors that no-one will be able to prise open. Anyone could
gemmy their way into our laboratory if they so desired, or are
we all going to end up with Fort Knox laboratories because then
universities will not be able to afford them? It is not to contain
the pathogens inside; it is to prevent malicious entry. How far
do you go? How much do you spend? Who should spend it? These are
Q283 Dr Gibson: Is the reason for
this animal experiments or what?
Professor Weiss: No, it is just
that these are being built new with containment facilities. It
is post 9/11 and anthrax; it is a concern about terrorism.
Q284 Dr Iddon: Chris Thorns suggested
that we have present capacity to deal with a major outbreak of
blue tongue disease; would your staff at the Institute of Animal
Health agree with that conclusion?
Professor Shirley: No, they would
not. We had this discussion last week, in fact, and there were
serious concerns expressed to me that not so much in infrastructure
but scientific capacity and technical capacity we might struggle
during the course of 2008. I picked this up so strongly that I
wrote to Defra last week to put this point to them, that I felt
that we would not have the capacity necessarily to deal with a
full blown outbreak in 2008 of blue tongue.
Q285 Dr Iddon: That is a capacity
shortage due to a lack of skill, is it?
Professor Shirley: What we have
is clearly surge requirement potentially during 2008 and we have
staff who we could bring across from other areas of science, for
example, who are not working on blue tongue. The point is that
if we do need to have expertise to deal with blue tongue diagnostics
we should begin to get that expertise in place now, so we have
the technicians able to service a fully blown outbreak in 2008
if that were to happen and of course we hope it does not happen.
Professor Weiss: Could I add to
that that there are certain disciplines in science and medicine
that are endangered and one is medical entomology. There are very
few people now who know sufficient about the insect and other
vectors that can transmit a disease, including blue tongue. Maintaining
that level of expertise when you get into specialities is quite
Q286 Dr Iddon: I am sure we will
make a note of that point. Do you think that there should be one
body overseeing the provision of Category 3 and Category 4 laboratories?
Should it be HPA or VLA or HSE or are you happy with the present
Mr Stephens: Can I ask for some
clarification? When you say "oversee" do you mean regulatory
Q287 Dr Iddon: Certainly in terms
of the location and ensuring that the condition and the maintenance
is kept up, irrespective of what people think locally. We got
the feeling from the previous panel that people were not awfully
sure where some of these facilities were and how many we had.
You heard the Chairman's remark previously. It seems to be just
a lack of coordination.
Professor Weiss: I would say that
CL 4 facilities will have to be known if they are not known now
and must be national. Category 3 is a lower level of build and
I can understand that a full audit of how many they is less clear.
Q288 Dr Iddon: We heard that the
HSE would have to approve a planning permission wherever a Category
4 was being built, for example here in central London. Is that
correct? If it is correct the HSE have some overlooking capacity
Professor Shirley: They would
certainly be involved in planning the facility, whether they have
to give planning permission I am not quite sure where their remit
ends, but we would expect to engage with the HSE as we do the
Home Office when we are thinking of having new accommodation built.
We get them in early so we can get their understanding and input
so we are building the right facility.
Q289 Dr Iddon: Where do we go for
Category 3 permission? Do we just go to the local planning authority?
Professor Weiss: With HSE approval,
if I am correct.
Q290 Dr Iddon: You do not seem very
sure of this, or are we just asking the wrong people?
Mr Stephens: We would be notifying
HSE that we were proposing to build a Category 3 or Category 4
and ask for their input as early in the project as possible.
Q291 Chairman: Is it mandatory?
Mr Stephens: Not for Category
3. Not to my knowledge.
Q292 Dr Iddon: My final question
relates to something Sir Leszek said in the previous panel. He
said that one university to his knowledge was thinking of providing
a Category 4 facility. Do you think universities should be allowed
to provide Category 4 facilities or should they share with already
existing Category 4 facilities?
Professor Shirley: I guess it
is an expanding area of science, certainly the one that we are
in, and I think there could be an argument that given the threats
we are currently in the work we are doing if we have buildings
that are full to capacity there may not be the ability to engage
with us work which a university department might wish to do, therefore
it seems quite reasonable that they should perhaps go their own
way to do their own studies. Providing that biosecurity is adhered
to and the buildings are fit for purpose then there seems to me
no reason why they should not do so.
Q293 Dr Iddon: Professor Weiss, do
you agree with that view?
Professor Weiss: I agree with
it in principle; I think in practice Category 4 is such a big
investment that one university going it alone without conferring
with other agencies or universities would have to have a very
serious long term guaranteed investment to do so.
Mr Stephens: Yes, I would agree
with that. There is no reason why universities, so long as they
have the initial funding and the continued funding to keep the
facility up to scratch, so long as the appropriate risk assessments
are done, so long as the appropriate management controls are in
place, there should be no reason why not.
Q294 Chairman: Level 4 large animal
containment facilities; I understood when we went to Pirbright
that that was part of the original plan.
Professor Shirley: Yes, it was.
Q295 Chairman: Why was it dropped?
Professor Shirley: The same reason
I am afraid, high cost.
Q296 Chairman: Just cost.
Professor Shirley: When you say
"just cost" the cost to provide the facility would have
been itself a large sum of money, but you are then into the recurrent
costs of maintaining that facility and maintaining the scientific
and technical expertise to maintain that facility. That was the
real killer cost.
Q297 Mr Cawsey: You will have worked
out by now that one of the advantages of being the second panel
is that you get to hear some of the questions earlier on. In my
own view you should all have to sit there like a game show with
headphones on listening to piped music so that it comes to you
new. I am still interested in this issue of training which we
discussed with the first panel when we were talking about much
training is necessary for people who are going to work with dangerous
pathogens, should it be done on site, how much should be prescribed
training so it is coordinated on a national basis and if that
were the case who would be responsible for doing that?
Professor Shirley: I think we
give very good training in situ. There are a number of hurdles
new staffs have to go through to be trained so there is quite
a formal process that they have to engage with. They also have
a buddy system as well to monitor them to make sure they are working
effectively during their initial weeks of employment and they
are signed off as they go through the whole process. Then their
books are available for inspection through our quality system.
Whether there should be a national type of qualification is an
interesting point. Again I see good reason why maybe there should
be something that gives a professional recognition for the training
that these individuals have undergone. I think the greater the
status they have for this type of activity the better. I would
be in favour of a more formal system but it is also important
to have the hands-on experience with the pathogens you are actually
going to be working with in the laboratory.
Professor Weiss: I agree. You
can have formal training courses but you must handle those particular
pathogens. There is training also in your habits. There has to
be a culture of proper hygiene with pathogens as Martin has already
emphasised. You can have a brilliant young scientist or medical
scientist come in and pass all his training exams and everything
else but you do not know that he is going to take his gloved hand
out of a safety hood and scratch his eye and that would not be
a good thing. Those things have to be done in situ.
Q298 Chairman: In principle you agree
with having a national recognised training scheme that an institution
Professor Weiss: Yes, but a national
training scheme should be minimalist rather than maximalist or
they will have passed onto the next job by the time they are trained.
Chairman: On that note can we thank you
all very much indeed, Professor Martin Shirley, Director of the
Institute for Animal Health, Professor Robin Weiss, the President
of the Society for General Microbiology and Mr Michael Stephens
from the Institute of Safety in Technology and Research. Thank
you all very, very much indeed.