Page last updated at 00:54 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 01:54 UK

MPs call for tighter biosecurity

Foot-and-mouth notices
The 2007 foot-and-mouth outbreak originated at Pirbright

British laboratories handling dangerous diseases have been neglected and biosecurity threatened by funding uncertainty, an MPs' report has warned.

Last year's foot-and-mouth outbreak at the Pirbright lab in Surrey showed the "devastating" costs to animals and the economy, the report said.

Pirbright and the Health Protection Agency's Porton Down labs are in need of "significant investment," it said.

MPs were "disturbed" that ministers never met to discuss biosecurity.

The report by the innovation, universities, science and skills committee was announced last year, following the Surrey outbreak which infected eight farms and cost farmers millions due to restrictions on livestock movements.

Pirbright cost

Investigators concluded the virus had probably escaped from a drain at the Pirbright labs, shared by the government-run Institute of Animal Health and drug company Merial.

The MPs' report sought to identify "generic lessons" from the outbreak and said that while some UK facilities are "world class", others need more investment.

The government must ensure that dependable funding is provided to maintain such facilities safely
Committee's report

On the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright, MPs said two government departments - Defra and the department for innovation, universities and skills - had to "settle how they are going to share the cost" of its 121m redevelopment.

And on the HPA facility at Porton Down, the committee said: "It is not acceptable that scientists are asked to work in such aging facilities." It said the site should be redeveloped "as a priority".

MPs said some laboratories handling the most dangerous pathogens did not have sufficient funding for "ongoing maintenance".

Ministerial responsibility

The report added: "This must be rectified to ensure the incident at Pirbright is not repeated. A number of high containment laboratories have been neglected and the funding situation is uncertain.

"The government must ensure that dependable funding is provided to maintain such facilities safely."

In the long run, proper regulation, running and maintenance of high containment facilities is considerably cheaper than remedying a breach of bio-containment
Phil Willis
Committee chairman

MPs also said they were struck by the "striking lack of co-ordination" between those funding and those running high containment facilities - and the fact that no one minister had responsibility for biosecurity.

They said they were "disturbed" to learn that ministers they questioned had never met on the on the issue of bio safety or biosecurity.

One minister should take on responsibility and meet with an inter-agency body the committee says should be set up to take on strategic planning and co-ordination of labs handling the highest-risk diseases.

They also said long-term funding should be in place to ensure the best biosecurity across all sites, that the government should report to Parliament every two years on the UK's readiness to deal with an outbreak and tougher vetting and training for staff at the highest risk facilities.

Committee chairman Phil Willis said the UK's "high international profile in the field of infectious disease" could only be maintained if animal and human health, and the economy, was properly protected.

He added: "The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease at Pirbright highlights that in the long run, proper regulation, running and maintenance of high containment facilities is considerably cheaper than remedying a breach of bio-containment."

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