A committee of MPs has concluded that it has no objection “in principle” to the building in urban areas of laboratories that handle the most dangerous of pathogens.
The conclusion comes despite the MPs’ findings that a number of the ten laboratories currently holding such licences have been “neglected”; that there is a “striking lack” of co-ordination between those sponsoring and running some of them; and that no current ministers have ever met to discuss the issue of biosecurity.
The decision is likely to please the Medical Research Council and others who are looking to build a £500 million super-laboratory at St Pancras in London. Though the consortium is yet to say whether it is seeking to build a containment level 4 (CL4) facility – required to handle the highest category of dangerous pathogens – it is already facing opposition from the local community over potential risks.
“We consider that there is no reason in principle why CL4 laboratories should not be built in urban areas, provided that the correct risk assessment is undertaken and the [biological risk] is managed appropriately,” concludes the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Skills and Science Select Committee in the report Biosecurity in UK Research Laboratories. It adds that applications should be considered on their individual merits.
It also finds there should be no “in principle” objection to UK universities building and operating facilities to handle the highest category of dangerous pathogens provided they inject sufficient long-term resources to maintain the high standards required. The university sector currently operates 110 high-containment laboratories none of which is CL4; though University College London is understood to have expressed interest in the possibility of developing such a facility.
The report singles out the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-run Institute for Animal Heath at Pirbright – which was implicated in the foot-and-mouth outbreak last year – and the government-run Health Protection Agency at Porton Down as CL4 facilities requiring “significant investment”. It also recommends an inter-agency body be set up to co-ordinate such facilities and a single minister take responsibility for co-ordinating biosecurity.