The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Many recent safety breaches at UK labs handling lethal viruses

December 6, 2014
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Robert Henderson
The Guardian  have obtained worrying data on the escape of dangerous viruses from supposedly high security laboratories in the UK:
The Guardian
Revealed: 100 safety breaches at UK labs handling potentially deadly diseases
Blunders led to live anthrax being posted from one lab and holes being found in isolation suits at a facility handling Ebola-infected animals
The ‘containment floor’ of the National Institute for Medical Research
Nine UK sites house CL4 labs, including the National Institute for Medical Research, which studies pandemic and avian flu. P
Ian Sample, science editor
Thursday 4 December 2014 12.31 GMT
High-security laboratories that handle the most dangerous viruses and bacteria have reported more than 100 accidents or near-misses to safety regulators in the past five years, official reports reveal.One blunder led to live anthrax being sent from a government facility to unsuspecting labs across the UK, a mistake that exposed other scientists to the disease. Another caused the failure of an air handling system that helped contain foot and mouth disease at a large animal lab.

Wear and tear also caused problems and potentially put researchers in danger. At a top security Ministry of Defence lab, tears were found in isolation suits at a facility handling animals infected with the Ebola virus.

Reports obtained by the Guardian from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that more than 70 incidents at government, university and hospital labs were serious enough to investigate. Many led to enforcement letters, or crown prohibition notices (CPN), ordering labs to shut until improvements were made. Some were so serious they ended in legal action.

Anthrax cells.
Anthrax cells. Photograph: Alamy
Prof Richard Ebright, a US biosafety expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who reviewed the reports for the Guardian, said that, taken together, they revealed failures in procedures, infrastructure, training and safety culture at some British labs.


Alarmed at a run of incidents at facilities that work on animal diseases, Ebright asked: “Does British agriculture have a death wish?”

The figures amount to one investigation every three weeks at secure laboratories that are designed to carry out research on pathogens that can cause serious illness and spread into the community. Some of the organisms are lethal and have no vaccines or treatments.

Many of the incidents were one-off, almost inevitable human mistakes, such as spillages of infectious bugs. Others were down to old equipment and safety clothing. The most serious accidents arose from chains of mistakes that happened one after the other, and were often only discovered later.

The reports compiled by the HSE describe at least 116 incidents and 75 completed investigations since April 2010 at laboratories where the most dangerous organisms are handled. Other investigations are under way, but the HSE cannot disclose details of those in case they lead to legal action. All of the investigations were prompted by reports from lab managers who are obliged by law to tell the HSE when an accident or near-miss happens at their facility.

The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey.
The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey. Photograph: Rex Features/Rex Features
Some of the most worrisome incidents happened at the Surrey-based Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), renamed the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in October. In one case, scientists were handling anthrax when something went badly wrong. They meant to send harmless samples, killed by heat, to nearby AHVLA labs and others in York and Belfast. But somehow the tubes got mixed up. Instead of sending out dead material, the anthrax they sent was live and dangerous.

The staff who made the mistake were safe enough. They worked in a high-security lab built to contain lethal agents. But some of those who received the bugs did not. In Belfast, the anthrax was handled in a higher containment lab, meaning those staff were safe. In York, the samples were never opened. But at another AHVLA site, scientists opened the tubes in a less secure lab and got to work on the open bench. The incident at the AHVLA is one of the more serious biological accidents that has happened in the UK in recent years. But it was far from being the only one.
This article confirms what I said in my objections to the Francis Crick Institute Laboratory presently being built in King Cross, viz:
Security issues alone should prevent the research centre being built.  The centre would be a prime terrorist target  because (1) there are three iconic sites in the closest proximity – the Eurostar terminal, the British Library and the Medical Research Centre itself; (2) the nature of the work to be undertaken at the Centre – the public information released to date suggests that it will be handling dangerous material and (3), all three of the major British political parties have given it enthusiastic public support which both raises its public profile and attaches it to national politics -hit the centre = hit the politicians – (see document 23).
Whether as a result of a terrorist attack or a failure of bio-security the consequences of an escape of  dangerous biological agents would be severe, both in terms of any contamination of people and by the economic effects on London (and by extension the country) which the fear generated by the escape of toxins would bring.
I have been attempting without success to get answers about the security arrangements for the proposed research centre since 2007. (For my dealings with the consortium and its individual members on security and other matters see documents 10-22).
My requests have been turned down on the grounds that this would breach security. This is a bogus ground for refusal because I deliberately did not ask for detailed operational accounts of their security, which would compromise security,  but general issues such as whether the security staff will be employed directly by the centre; whether the staff will have been raised in Britain (vetting foreigners is in practice impossible); how cleaners (normally a weak point in security because they work at night when security is minimal); how toxic materials will be transported in and out of the centre and whether the security staff would be armed, something absolutely necessary if there is a threat of terrorist attacks especially if they involved suicide bombers.
The real reason why the consortium will not comment is they do not have a clue about how their security will work. The UKCMRI CEO John Cooper gave the game away at a meeting convened by St Pancras and Somers Town Planning Action and  held on 4 10 2010 in the Somers Town Community Centre when he said that their security arrangements would not be decided for three years. It is absurd to allow people who have not considered in detail  the security issues involved before submitting a planning application to be granted that application, not least because the design and situation of the building should be taking these issues into account as one of the primary drivers of the design.
The security, both bio and anti-terrorist,  is particularly compromised by the intention of the consortium to allow scientists who are not employed by the consortium to carry out research. These people could be either from non-profit organisations or private firms:
“There will be dedicated space for technology transfer and additional lab space to enable the findings of the research teams within the centre to be developed and translated into clinical applications by scientists from pharmaceutical companies and partners.” The Bliss Project Concept and Vision (see document 7)
This raises two security problems: the vetting of such people and the lack of a single authority responsible for the security of the centre.   This is precisely what happened at Pirbright which was split between government and private business with no one in overall control (see document 9). Come the foot and mouth outbreak of 2007 no one would take responsibility with both sides blaming the other.
Thorough vetting of those who come from abroad would be impracticable and vetting of anyone born and raised in Britain but who has spent substantial periods of time abroad problematic. These considerations would be relevant to both scientists and other staff, many of whom would be foreign or have spent long periods out of the country.
I would also draw the planning committee’s attention to the fact that Islamic extremism is seen by the government as a growing problem in British universities (see document 5) and that one of the consortium’s members – UCL – has been recently had a student-  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who went on to try to commit a terrorist act (see document 6).
The limited access proposed for the public would also be a weak link in the security.
Things are no more promising on the bio-security side. At the meeting of 4 10m 2010,  John Cooper promised that nothing more dangerous than influenza viruses would be in the centre. However, this  was meaningless because, as he very grudgingly admitted, there would be legal bar to this policy  being changed at some point in the future. Moreover, ‘flu viruses can be extremely toxic, vide the 1918 epidemic which swept Europe and caused more deaths than had occurred in military action during the Great War.
There is good reason to believe that toxins officially classified as more dangerous than influenza will be used. The MRC site in Mill Hill – the site Brill Place is meant to replace –  has 11 laboratories licenced for level 3 biohazards and one licensed for level 4 biohazards (see document 3).  The license for level 3 work allows the following to be used for research:
Biohazard Level 3: Bacteria and viruses that can cause severe to fatal disease in humans, but for which vaccines or other treatments exist, such as anthrax, West Nile virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, SARS virus, variola virus (smallpox), tuberculosis, typhus, Rift Valley fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, yellow fever, and malaria. Among parasites Plasmodium falciparum, which causes Malaria, and Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes trypanosomiasis, also come under this level.
The consortium is applying for level 3 licenses for the proposed medical centre. Once they have these they can work on any of the viruses and bacteria listed above regardless of what is promised now.
Presumably whatever work the MRC has been conducting under the level 4 licence will continue. If it comes to the new centre work on these toxins would be covered:
Biohazard Level 4: Viruses and bacteria that cause severe to fatal disease in humans, and for which vaccines or other treatments are not available, such as Bolivian and Argentine hemorrhagic fevers, H5N1(bird flu), Dengue hemorrhagic fever, Marburg virus, Ebola virus, hantaviruses, Lassa fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and other hemorrhagic diseases. When dealing with biological hazards at this level the use of a Hazmat suit and a self-contained oxygen supply is mandatory. The entrance and exit of a Level Four biolab will contain multiple showers, a vacuum room, an ultraviolet light room, autonomous detection system, and other safety precautions designed to destroy all traces of the biohazard. Multiple airlocks are employed and are electronically secured to prevent both doors opening at the same time. All air and water service going to and coming from a Biosafety Level 4 (P4) lab will undergo similar decontamination procedures to eliminate the possibility of an accidental release.
If the level 4 work is not to come to the proposed research centre the consortium’s claim that their work has to be done at the Brill Place siteis discredited. If it does come to the site then risk is raised considerably. As to whether it  will come to the site, answers given by John Davidson at a meeting held 11 10 2010 in the Ossulton TRA Hall  provide a strong pointer. Questioned by myself, he stated that the Mill Hill facility would definitely be closed if and when the centre was built and he could not rule out all the Mill Hill work being moved to the Brill Place site including the level 4 risk work.
The DCMS were certainly led to believe that the centre would deal with viruses other than influenza, viz.:
“4. MRC anticipates that some £205 m of additional investment will be secured from consortium partners for the development of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. This is investment which would otherwise be Lost to the public purse. This additional investment in the work of the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) will support the delivery of high quality research on:
“ The origins of the AIDS epidemic, detecting tuberculosis (TB) infection, variations in the structure of the bird flu virus H5N1 all of which could Lead to more effective breakthroughs in drug development. Scientists at NIMR have also:- (With the University of Hong Kong) isolated the gene responsible for sensory development in the inner ear, which may lead to significant advances in the development of treatments for the deaf and those with severely impaired hearing; and determined the structure of the enzyme that regulates cellular energy levels which could lead to new drugs for type II diabetes, an illness that affects more than two million people in the UK. Taken together, these important results emerging from the UKCMRI could substantially improve the quality of life and allow those who benefit from the findings to continue to make their important contribution to the economy.” (See DCMS Q and A – document  4)
Every large organisation which has security issues always says their security is very tight and time and again the security fails. Pirbright said  exactly this before they had to admit that they were at fault. The members of the consortium say this. The MRC recently were involved in lax procedures which resulted in the death of a patient, viz.:
“Daily telegraph
Man dies in government cancer drug trial A man about to get married has died in a government-funded medical trial after receiving seven overdoses of drugs.
By Jon Swaine
Last Updated: 7:50PM BST 21 Sep 2008
Gary Foster, 27, was repeatedly given twice the amount of chemotherapy drugs he should have been prescribed. He was due to be married this month. Reports have said his death was caused by an error in the setting up of the trial on the computer system at University College London Hospital (UCLH). A second patient was affected by the same mistake, but survived. When the MRC suspected patients had been given overdoses, instead of calling the hospital immediately it wrote a letter – which a nurse at UCLH failed to open until two days after Mr Foster had died…” (see document 8).”
It is wildly improbable that there will not be a breach of security, either through negligence or terrorist action, from the Francis Crick Institute (FCI), which will be dealing with some of the most dangerous viruses.
Situated where the FCI is, any escape of pathogens would be unambiguously disastrous. It is next door to Eurostar Terminal  and St Pancras Station,  a few hundred yards from Kings Cross and Euston stations, a few yards from the British Museum and only the width of a street from residential housing on its Western boundary. Huge numbers of commuters and visitors to London pass through the area every day. It would be difficult to think of another part of London which would cause as much disruption in the event of the escape of dangerous viruses. Permitting the  building of the FCI on such a site is an act of criminal negligence by the planning authorities.



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