Britain hits a hurdle in replacing key animal-pathogen facility

Ministry pulls out of deal to redevelop Pirbright laboratory.

Ageing facilities at the Pirbright Laboratory need updating. Credit: G. Fuller/PA

Plans to build a £121-million (US$180-million) animal-pathogen facility in the United Kingdom are likely to have to be scaled back after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) walked away from the project.

The decision is a "big setback for the United Kingdom's ability to respond to animal diseases and to protect the livestock industry", says Keith Gull, a microbiologist at the University of Oxford and chairman of the governing body for the country's Institute for Animal Health (IAH).

In 2005, DEFRA agreed with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department of Trade and Industry to redevelop ageing facilities at the IAH's Pirbright site — in 2007, a poorly maintained drainpipe there led to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. But the project, which was due to be completed in 2011, has been delayed until 2013. Costs have also been rising; £33 million has already been spent, although it is not clear on what.

The BBSRC is now reassessing the size and scale of the plans. "The vision of the joint venture with DEFRA was to bring together our complementary activities; the BBSRC is now taking this project forward alone," says Matt Goode, a BBSRC spokesman.

DEFRA was to have contributed around £58 million to the new building and to move about 70 staff there from its Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge. DEFRA would not confirm whether it has abandoned the project, but it says in a statement that it has no plans to stop spending £5.8 million per year on research and surveillance on exotic diseases at the IAH.

The news comes as the UK government published its response, on 3 February, to a review by microbiologist Iain Anderson of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The Anderson report recommends redeveloping the IAH into a new National Institute for Infectious Diseases, which would be funded by multiple sources, including government. Such an institute was meant to join up and strengthen government research on diseases affecting animals and humans. At present, animal-health research is overseen by DEFRA and the BBSRC, and human-health research by the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council.

The government's response to the Anderson report notes that the BBSRC will continue to fund the IAH. But it says that the government will shortly be consulting on plans to establish a new body that would operate at arm's length from ministers. This body would "assume all of DEFRA's existing roles and responsibilities in relation to animal health".

In a policy statement on how the United Kingdom should take forward infectious-disease research, the Royal Society says that "a national policy for infectious diseases of both humans and animals is needed". It also notes that "research support and policy for infectious diseases is highly fragmented". By contrast, in the United States, four national centres covering infectious diseases in humans and animals are subsumed under a Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.

But now the IAH redevelopment will fall short of such goals, and it is unclear whether the government intends to take forward the idea of a national institute. The BBSRC says it will consider its plans and budget for redeveloping the IAH at an 11 February meeting. It will then submit a revised business plan to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills â€" which has replaced the Department of Trade and Industry â€" to ask for additional funding.

"We will end up with a nice new facility," says Gull. "But will it be fit for purpose for the nation's needs?"

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See also Correspondence: Animal-health facility in Germany leads the way for Europe

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Anderson’s 2007 review

Government response to Anderson’s review

Royal Society statement

Institute for Animal Health

Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases

BBSRC statement

Veterinary Laboratories Agency

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Gilbert, N. Britain hits a hurdle in replacing key animal-pathogen facility. Nature (2009) doi:10.1038/457769a

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