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

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 quite substantial.

  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 pathogens—even those that are genuinely high category—we 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 technique—it is not rocket science—that 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 OIE—the international agencies—to 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 understand—it goes back to the previous question that Brian Iddon asked as well—is 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 Pirbright—it may well happen in terms of human pathogens in the future—indicates 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 proposition?

  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 unanswered questions.

  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 difficult.

  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 arrangement?

  Mr Stephens: Can I ask for some clarification? When you say "oversee" do you mean regulatory or strategically?

  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 there.

  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 builds on.

  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.

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