Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have revealed unacceptable shortcomings in UK regulation.
Nothing gets a British prime minister to the emergency-response table quicker than a security threat, and biosecurity is no exception. Gordon Brown has already found himself having to respond promptly to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, as did his predecessor Tony Blair. Unless the proper lessons are learned from these outbreaks, he could face more, and more serious, such emergencies in the future.
An outbreak in 2001 led to widespread culls of British livestock and devastating financial losses to farmers and the economy. Two more outbreaks this year, in which the virus escaped from a research site in Surrey, have been much more contained. Reports by the Health and Safety Executive and by a group of scientists led by Brian Spratt, a bacteriologist from Imperial College London, revealed that the site, in Pirbright, had critical problems with its effluent systems. The government has responded to the report, and set up more reviews to correct regulatory shortcomings.
These shortcomings are glaring enough. The site has two occupants, the publicly funded Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and Merial, a company that produces vaccines against foot-and-mouth disease. The reports conclude that Merial had not breached the terms of its biosecurity licence, awarded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). But they acknowledge that even though the firm had used chemical treatments to clean up 12,000 litres of fluid containing an estimated 1014 infectious units of virus in its category 4 containment facility, there was every possibility that the outbreak was caused by effluent from the facility. That such a possibility could meet the terms of a licence beggars belief. DEFRA's licensing standards are in urgent need of review; the government response rightly, if belatedly, acknowledges that the company probably needs to install sterilizing heat treatment.
Another belated government response is its recognition of two glaring conflicts of interest that bedevil biosecurity at the site: that the person responsible for Merial's biosecurity was also its site director; and that the site's other occupant, the IAH, is not only licensed by DEFRA but is also in large part funded by it. Such financially conflicted dual responsibilities are a recipe for underspending on security.
But there is no public sign, either from the government or elsewhere, of a more fundamental concern. The IAH is central to Britain's ability to protect itself against future outbreaks of animal disease, whether unleashed by natural causes, human error or enemy action. It also has a vital role in these issues internationally. To fulfil these roles the institute requires (and indeed has) a world-class research base that lets it address key scientific questions and at the same time maintain and develop the techniques needed to identify and deal with diseases. It also requires infrastructure to support both research and surveillance. Spratt's committee mentions chronic shortcomings in lab conditions at the IAH, although they are not blamed for the outbreak.
Here DEFRA is yet again in the frame. The IAH's core funding is provided by the United Kingdom's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Its surveillance obligations and other practical duties mean that it struggles for funding against other institutes with roles that lie squarely within the BBSRC's research remit. DEFRA is supposedly obliged to uphold a government principle to fully fund the institute's infrastructure costs. This it has failed to do — a failure that has become marked, as it has cut its support for the IAH at a time when such support seems more important than ever.
The IAH's role was last reviewed in 2002. At that time, the review committee emphasized the need for biological and regulatory research to be strengthened at the IAH, and for its funders to develop a coherent approach.
Recently, the relevant bodies have seen a wave of turnover in their key players — ministers and the chief scientists of both the government at large and DEFRA in particular have changed, as has the head of the BBSRC (which, for good measure, is now supported through a new department). If he wants to minimize the frequency of future emergency committee meetings, Gordon Brown should bang all these new heads together and ensure that the 2002 funding recommendations for the IAH are implemented by all key players, and soon.