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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)


21 APRIL 2008

  Q360  Dr Iddon: In Germany the Committee is aware that there is a large animal facility and I understand that scientists in this country wanted to build a similar facility at Pirbright but that it has been struck out because of the increased cost that that would bring to the scheme. Do you believe that we need a large animal facility at category four in this country to either carry out a post mortem or carry out research on large animals such as horses, cattle and so on?

  Ian Pearson: I think it is for the experts to come to conclusions about whether a large animal facility that would be able to be at a containment level to tackle dangerous pathogens is needed.

  Dr Iddon: I think they have come to the conclusion that one is needed and a request was made to build one at Pirbright. That is my understanding.

  Chairman: We understand that it was turned down.

  Q361  Dr Iddon: It has been struck out because of the cost.

  Ian Pearson: I am not sited on the particular thing that something has been struck out. I do not understand where that is coming from. I thought the case for whether there needed to be a large animal facility was still something that was under consideration. If I have any better information on that, I am happy to write to the Committee on it.

  Q362  Mr Boswell: On the operational practice in the future, if a director of an institute, be it Pirbright, be it one in the human health sector or otherwise, is conscious perhaps as a result of ageing facilities of some biosecurity hazard and this is not a particular affection of his or hers but is confirmed by the HSE—and there is clearly a debate about that—and if the area of work is one which you regard as a strategic priority within government, either for human or animal health or for some other wider reasons, can we be fairly certain that that need for capital expenditure will be treated as in effect a contingency that will be advanced up as against the possibility either that the work will cease or that it will continue and be done on a wing and a prayer with people's fingers crossed?

  Ian Pearson: There are a lot of ifs in that question which make it very difficult to answer. In general terms, if a director of a research institute as you suggest has concerns about the biosecurity of his site, I think it would be the responsibility of that director to report them to the Health and Safety Executive or their appropriate regulator to make sure that there is a thorough inspection that takes place and that any improvement notices or remedial action that needs to be taken is taken. Obviously if this was a research institute that was financially supported through one of the Research Councils, then they would want as part of the normal process to put in a bid to the Research Councils for the necessary capital funding to undertake that work. That is how it would happen in normal circumstances.

  Dawn Primarolo: If one of the class four laboratories within the HPA failed either on health and safety on the biosafety side and/or the security side, it cannot function. It is closed. My understanding from the human pathogen HPA work is that that cannot happen.

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: One would hope that these things would not only emerge at the last minute but that the process of regulation and engagement would have spotted it earlier, but it is absolutely right. If the system was not fit for purpose, then some form of improvement or prohibition notice could be served. If it were in Crown ownership, then there are parallel processes.

  Q363  Mr Boswell: It would be ultimately for ministers who had the national interest in mind to respond to that by, if necessary, making the capital funds available on an emergency basis if it had arisen?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: The issue of improvement notices and prohibition notices would certainly not be for ministers. That would be for individual inspectors.

  Q364  Mr Boswell: Once issued, the response would be in the hands of ministers?

  Ian Pearson: Regulators will shut it if it is not safe to be operated. It would be up to us to take action to ensure that we provide the funding to make it safer.

  Q365  Mr Cawsey: During the course of this inquiry we learned about the MRC considering to move their work from the National Institute for Medical Research into a brand new facility in the centre of London. It did lead us to speak to a number of people who we have taken evidence from through the inquiry as to how wise it is to have a large laboratory dealing with dangerous pathogens in the centre of a city, London or anywhere else for that matter. I think it is fair to say that we have had a whole different series of views, but Professor Griffin when he spoke to us as part of his policy said he thought it ought to be avoided, frankly, and it would be better to keep them out of large conurbations. I just wondered whether there was any view on whether they should be permitted.

  Ian Pearson: Firstly, no decision has been taken at all on what biosecurity facilities should be provided at the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. They are still very much at the design stage and it would be up to Sir Paul Nurse and the community to make appropriate recommendations about how the project is taken forward in terms of the containment level that might be required for the science that they want to conduct there. I would not want to prejudge any of those decisions in the future. I just offer the observation that there are more than a dozen cities around the world where containment level four facilities do operate. I am not aware that there are any security or biosecurity issues as a result of those. One of the things we have done is to ask George Griffin to comment on this as part of the work that he is doing and we would want to consider the evidence that he produces when he comes up with his report.

  Q366  Mr Cawsey: Given the increasing role in the HSE in the regulation of all of this, do you think perhaps they should be required to give approval for a location of a proposed build?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: I do not think that should necessarily follow. It does depend upon the circumstances. We come back to the point we have touched upon quite a lot this afternoon about responsibility for biosecurity. It does not rest with the HSE. It rests with those who own and operate and run the facility. That is the right balance. Certainly there is a role for the HSE in terms of the design and how the facility is operated but the key role in all of this is in making sure that there is effective biosecurity. Bill Callaghan recommended that the process should try to be as close to zero as is possible in terms of handling of risks. I think that does rest with the operators.

  Q367  Mr Cawsey: Given the review of level four facilities, where they are and who runs them, is there a view on whether they should be restricted to the government sector or should universities be allowed to run them?

  Ian Pearson: Universities already run a range of containment facilities. They run literally hundreds of containment level three facilities at the moment and I do not think there is any reason to believe that universities are an less reliable than a government institute when it comes to running containment level four facilities.

  Q368  Mr Cawsey: One of the reasons might simply be the old question of costs. Some of the evidence we have been looking at looked at the idea of centralised facilities because otherwise, with lots of small facilities, it is a very expensive way of providing them. They are often under-utilised and perhaps really high containment laboratories should be more centralised, where people could come in and use them as they need them. Is that a view that you are considering?

  Ian Pearson: That is a very fair point. One of the things that the review will look at specifically, as I understand it, is centralisation and whether centralisation makes sense in the broader, strategic sense. These things are hugely expensive facilities and it is right that they are used in the most effective way. That might well mean having them in relatively few locations rather than spread around.

  Q369  Chairman: You mentioned earlier the issue of governance. Clearly the Callaghan Review, when it looked at what had happened at Pirbright, was critical—let us put it that way—of the fact that you had Merial and the Institute for Animal Health who did not seem to talk to each other in terms of biosecurity. I wonder if that is what you meant by governance. Indeed, is the government planning to do anything across different ministerial teams about ensuring that we do have a level of governance which does not in fact have different organisations on the same site not being able to speak to each other effectively.

  Ian Pearson: That was not what I was particularly talking about but you are right to say that there is a triangle here with the regulator, the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright and Merial. It is important that we learn the lessons for all the organisations as part of the process. I was specifically talking about one of the recommendations in the Beringer Review about governance arrangements, which is recommendation five where it says that, in line with the previous wishes of the IAH governing bodies, BBSRC should take over direct responsibility for the governance of the Institute of Animal Health and as an interim measure to resolve the current ambiguity of governance in recognition of the scale of change facing IAH, " . . . we recommend that the IAH governing body should invite BBSRC to give them a corporate trustee for the Institute of Animal Health."

  Q370  Chairman: Some of us will be surprised that that is not the case.

  Ian Pearson: My understanding is that the charity that is currently the body corporate for Pirbright will be making a decision tomorrow on this and inviting BBSRC to be a corporate trustee and therefore to take over and clarify arrangements. It is obviously a matter for those who run the board of the charity.

  Q371  Chairman: Would you be supportive?

  Ian Pearson: I would be very supportive and certainly the BBSRC I know is very supportive of this. It has been talking to the IAH governing body about this. This will clarify arrangements for the short term. There then needs to be a decision taken about the medium term and appropriate governance arrangements. That is something that again Beringer talks about and suggests that BBSRC and, through them, ourselves and Defra will need to take decisions on that within the next 12 months. BBSRC for its part has said that it wants to finalise a revised business case within the next six months for Pirbright. Again, I think it is important that we continue to make progress and get on with it while discussing what are the most appropriate arrangements given the work that Pirbright does which both covers world class research to be expanded by BBSRC, but also important surveillance activity that is rightly the responsibility of Defra as a Department. We need to have that conversation. In the meantime, we are taking the short term steps to clarify the position and BBSRC are getting on with producing the business case.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: All the questions have been in effect related to research capacity but, from Defra's point of view, that is only one side of the coin. The diagnostic facility for us for outbreaks of animal disease is absolutely crucial, equally so, and therefore we need to have a surge capacity both with our own laboratories and our customer laboratories. Indeed, we have arrangements—I want to say this by way of reassurance in a way so that it does not seem negative—if needed with the medical authorities to use human laboratories when we have a crisis. The question was related to had we got sufficient capacity. Our review from 2001, given what we have done with the VLA at Weybridge, the huge amount of expenditure in there, what we have planned and what we have been able to fund at Pirbright and the other arrangements that we have made, we have sufficient capacity. The capacity for us is two ways. It is the research strategically and of course diagnostically. We cannot really plan for that in a cubby hole. With avian influenza and other new diseases that we are probably having to deal with and that we need to be prepared to deal with, we do need extra capacity. We feel as though we are okay. There are discussions around the laboratory network, not just Defra but the other laboratories as well. It is not just the research capacity; the speed of the diagnostic capacity is absolutely fundamental if you are dealing with exotic animal disease outbreaks. The speed is crucial. As I hope we showed once foot and mouth was notified, we were able to deal with it much more quickly than we had in 2001 and indeed with avian influenza as well. That aspect of capacity for us is just as important as the research capacity.

  Q372  Chairman: To be fair, we have taken a lot of evidence on that issue of surge capacity and had some very reassuring comments made about that.

  Ian Pearson: It is important to emphasise that it is about research and surveillance, which is why Beringer talks about a joint national strategy.

  Chairman: By way of comment, I do not think you can divorce the two areas of research and surveillance. They do go hand in hand and good research leads to good surveillance and vice versa.

  Q373  Mr Boswell: Just a few words about staff. It would be a common interest that we all think this depends on a high level of staff. I am bound to say at the levels that we have talked to people, even quite junior levels, we have been impressed by their enthusiasm and the fact that obviously, self-evidently, they are anxious neither to endanger themselves nor their immediate work colleagues. The first question comes back a bit to this general question of capacity. What is being done by government as a whole to ensure a continuity of supply of well trained scientists in key disciplines and specifically is there a shortage of trained staff at container level four work at the HPA? It may not be confined to the HPA. Are we going to want to do all these things, to face new challenges, and find we have not got the people to man the facilities we have or need?

  Ian Pearson: Shall I say something on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in general and Dawn might want to say something on the HPA.

  Q374  Chairman: It is a very specific area though, is it not, in terms of scientists working at level four and technicians working at level four?

  Ian Pearson: It is a very specific area. Tim's question was a very broad one to start with.

  Q375  Mr Boswell: It got narrower.

  Ian Pearson: As you know, Tim, on the broad point, there is a huge amount of work that the government, working with a range of partners, is doing on the STEM agenda right through into our schools to make sure that we have kids who want to do science subjects at GCSE, A level and want to go through to university. There are some encouraging signs as well about the number of people applying to go to university to take science subjects.

  Q376  Mr Boswell: Just interrupting you for a second, while I accept that is extremely important, clearly even if the overall population rises we need to make sure that the particular cells that deal with category level four are adequately populated themselves, do we not?

  Ian Pearson: Of course we do but I just wanted to make a broad science point about the government investment in science education.

  Q377  Chairman: We accept all that and we applaud it.

  Ian Pearson: When it comes to the specifics in terms of staff at containment level four facilities, Dawn will probably want to say something on HPA but just in general training is required to conform to a range of legislation that is already in place at the moment, whether it is the Health and Safety at Work Act or the COSHH regulations, both of which are administered by the Health and Safety Executive. Clearly any research institute or organisation operating containment level facilities is going to want to make sure that its staff are adequately and fully trained to meet the tasks that are required and that they conform to the high standards of biosafety and security that we expect. It will be up to those individual establishments to develop their own—

  Q378  Mr Boswell: You see it as a primary post employment training facility, not something which needs to be done at the undergraduate or postgraduate level?

  Ian Pearson: My understanding is the way these things work is that somebody who might be a principal investigator, for instance on the research side, as part of their research training, doctoral, post-doctoral and onwards, will have built into that training the need to follow good clinical practice and good measures of biosecurity. Then you will have a range of people who will be operating at technician level, who will come into an organisation. They may have come into it with a background but they may have training requirements and it will be up to that organisation to assess those and make sure that they have the adequate training that is involved. At different levels, you will have different training needs but certainly the people who are leading a lot of the research projects, as opposed to some of the surveillance work that is done, would have had extensive training throughout their career in biosecurity practices, because it is inbuilt into the whole learning process.

  Q379  Mr Boswell: Dawn, do you want to say something about the HPA?

  Dawn Primarolo: Yes. For the HPA there is not a shortage of staff with regard to the level four laboratories at the present time. The HPA also do training for the future. I am sure you appreciate it does take time. They have their own training of a very high standard, considered the gold standard, but of course you alluded to the fact that this is highly specialist work. Even with that training, as with the laboratories themselves, these are relatively scarce resources though there is no shortage at the present time. They do train for the future. It takes time and they do recognise the importance of these resources. On a separate issue, it is also the responsibility of the HPA when there are high security infectious diseases and there is a need for patient care at level four. The HPA keeps staff trained at all times to that level in case they are needed. I would want to assure you that there is an active programme there in terms of assuring staff are trained to the relevant levels. Again, we are talking about scarce resources here so of course the HPA can never be and is not complacent on that. It is very actively involved.

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