Britain needs a new £1BILLION super lab dedicated to stopping the next pandemic amid warnings that Porton Down is ‘crumbling’, MPs are told
Britain needs a new super-laboratory for deadly pathogens to replace its crumbling Porton Down facility, experts have told MPs.
This secure government research site in Salisbury is used to work with smallpox and other viruses and bacteria with biological warfare potential.
But the high security and containment facilities are also used by academics researching pathogens that could cause the next pandemic.
However, this work was held back due to the site’s “crumbling” state, experts warn.
Professor Sir Peter Horby, director of the Pandemic Sciences Institute at the University of Oxford, told MPs on the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee that the value of labs such as Porton Down cannot be underestimated in terms of a pandemic response.
Experts say Porton Down’s ‘crumbling’ infrastructure is holding UK back when it comes to research into dangerous pathogens
Porton Down is what is known as a Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 facility, a location that theoretically has the required safety and containment procedures in place to contain dangerous viruses and bacteria. Another famous BSL-4 lab is the Wuhan Institute of Virology
This map shows all known BSL-4 laboratories with countries shaded based on how scientists ranked their overall biorisk management score. Green is good, yellow is average, and red is bad. Some planned labs have not been included because their exact location in the country has not been announced
“High containment labs are absolutely essential,” he said.
“You can’t diagnose the disease, you can’t evaluate the diagnostic tests, you can’t understand the pathogenesis of the disease, you can’t evaluate the therapies and vaccines and animal models unless you have high containment capabilities.
‘At a certain point you have to work with the live virus, you have to.’
But he said the UK does not currently have the capacity to carry out this work.
“The infrastructure at Porton Down is crumbling,” he said.
When asked by MPs what the cost of replacing Porton Down would be, Professor Bryan Charleston, director of the Pirbright Institute, a high-level containment laboratory working on animal diseases, said it would cost more than £1bn.
“You’d be talking about over £1 billion to build a lab of the sort of quality and size that would be expected,” he said.
However, he said such a mega-laboratory would have the advantage of properly conducting research on dangerous pathogens.
“You don’t want two or three, you want one of the right size and you want it well built and well manned,” he said. “They are not easy to drive.”
Porton Down is what is technically known as a Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 facility, the safest laboratory of its kind for research into dangerous pathogens.
BSL-4 labs often have armed guards to keep them safe, with researchers told to wear fully enclosed PPE suits during experiments.
Such sites, of which there are currently about 70 around the world, can harbor the viruses and bacteria responsible for diseases such as smallpox, Ebola and Lassa fever.
Another famous BSL-4 lab is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the facility where some believed Covid leaked out and sparked a global pandemic.
The pandemic has sparked a rush to expand the BSL 3 and 4 laboratories, a move that some experts say could represent a lack of oversight given the high containment standards these facilities are supposed to follow.