Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Wellcome Trust

  The Wellcome Trust welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Lords on this issue. The Trust has recently responded to the Department of Health, regarding the discussion document Getting Ahead of the Curve: Action to strengthen the microbiology function in the prevention and control of infectious diseases and the consultation documents, Health Protection: A consultation document on creating a health protection agency and Pathology—The Essential Service, Draft Guidance on Modernising Pathology Services, where issues raised are relevant to the work of the Trust.

  The Trust is encouraged by the action of the Science and Technology Select Committee in setting up a Sub-Committee to consider and report on surveillance issues relating to infection. In addition, the Trust agrees that public attitude, risk perception and the media are also important factors related to this issue.

  The six questions posed fall within the Trust's remit, "to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health", although we have kept our response to a research focus, rather than one of general health policy, with particular respect to the first three questions.

1.   What are the main problems facing the surveillance, treatment and prevention of human infectious disease in the United Kingdom?

  Isolate and strain collections, which have been obtained through surveillance, need to be maintained, enhanced and made more generally available to academic researchers. Research into vaccination strategy, pathogenicity, antibiotic resistance and improved intervention techniques require access to such resources and collections. Development of new diagnostic techniques for improved isolate characterisation also depend upon access to comprehensive collections.

2.   Will these problems be adequately addressed by the Government's recent infectious disease strategy, Getting Ahead of the Curve?

  It appears from Getting Ahead of the Curve, that the research budget of the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) will pass to the National Health Service (NHS) under the proposed changes. The Trust considers that these funds should remain ring-fenced for public health, both within NHS and the Health Protection Agency (HPA). If adequate government funding of research and development into public health is not protected, there could be a risk to surveillance and hence treatment and prevention of human disease. The development of new vaccinations, diagnostics and intervention methods rely extensively on such collections. Alternatively the formation of the HPA could be taken as an opportunity to strengthen this area within the UK science base and attract researchers into this area.

3.   Is the United Kingdom benefiting from advances in surveillance and diagnostic technologies; if not, what are the obstacles to its doing so?

  The Trust considers that although currently the UK has a strong expertise in this area, the UK may not currently be benefiting fully from advances in surveillance and diagnostics, and this could in part be due to the current structure of the PHLS. The reorganisation proposed in "Getting Ahead of the Curve" could therefore be an opportunity to make dramatic improvements in this area. However, there is also a risk that if the changes are not either adequately funded or managed, the situation in the UK could worsen rather than improve.

  Because of the similarity of a response to this Call for Evidence, to that recently submitted by the Trust to the Department of Health, we enclose a copy of our response concerning the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and modernisation of pathology services, which we hope may be of interest to the Committee. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you require further information on the issues discussed.

  The Trust would like to draw the attention of the Committee to the consultation exercise regarding the formation of the HPA and modernisation of pathology services, which was rather restrictive in response time.

  In conclusion, the Trust is concerned that aspects such as the funding and organisation of research and development under the proposed HPA may not have yet been fully considered or addressed under the proposed new structure due to come into force in March 2003. I have written to the Chief Medical Officer for clarification on these issues. The Trust considers that such reorganisation should be used as an ideal opportunity to strengthen the UK research base in public health and infectious disease surveillance and increase links to the academic community.

  We hope our response is helpful to the Committee.

October 2002

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