Published online 3 October 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1149


UK government to announce biosecurity plans

High-security labs to get a multi-million pound revamp.

labA high-security (level 4) biological laboratory at Porton Down.JAMES KING-HOLMES / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

An outline of the British government's plans to address biosecurity concerns at the country's high-security labs is expected to be published next week.

The plan is a response to an assessment of UK biosecurity by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee (IUSS), published in June, which included calls for improvements to security vetting procedures for employees and for a single minister to take responsibility for coordinating biosecurity.

The government's response will include plans announced last month to redevelop high-security labs at the Porton Down military establishment near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The IUSS committee has raised concerns that the labs, which carry out work on highly infectious and deadly diseases, are run-down and in need of significant investment. The revamp is expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

Also expected later this month is the publication of a review of the United Kingdom's containment level four (CL4) laboratories — which deal with the highest category of dangerous pathogen. Led by George Griffin, chairman of the Department of Health advisory committee on dangerous pathogens, the review will chart all the CL4 labs in the United Kingdom to assess whether the country has sufficient research and infrastructure capacity.

Porton run down

The move to overhaul the CL4 labs at Porton's Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, run by the UK Health Protection Agency (HPA), will address specific criticisms from the IUSS committee. The committee said it was "not acceptable that scientists are asked to work in such ageing facilities" and called for "significant investment" from the government to redevelop the site as a priority.

The committee undertook an investigation of biosecurity at the UK's high security labs after the 2007 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle was blamed on dilapidated facilities at the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright.

The Department of Health has given the HPA "sufficient funds" to draw up a series of designs and a business case for a new high containment lab, says HPA spokesman Phil Luton. The plans are expected to be complete by 2010 and will cost around £1 million (US$1.8 million), Luton says.

"The plans will then go back to the Department of Health and the Treasury for approval and funding. The actual building of the new facilities is expected to cost in the hundreds of millions of pounds," he says.

"I must stress that the existing buildings are fine, they work, are licensed and meet all regulatory standards. But the infrastructure is coming towards the end of its working life," he says.

Good news all over

Currently around 550 scientists work at the lab. There are no plans to dramatically increase this capacity or the scope of lab's research on diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in the new building, Luton says. But one of the designs being drawn up includes plans to expand the lab's work on translational research through which bench-side discoveries are turned into useful products or services.

The government's response to the concerns regarding Porton Down "is very welcome", says Phil Willis, chairman of the IUSS committee. "The fact that government has moved so quickly is an indication that not all was well at Porton Down."

Willis says he received the government's response to all the recommendations in the committee's report last Friday and he expects to publish it on Wednesday. "It is good news all over." 

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