UK zoonotic research site left to deteriorate

The UK’s main facility for dealing with animals-to-human viruses has “deteriorated at an alarming rate”, MPs say.

The Public Affairs Committee report cited “inadequate management and underinvestment” at the Weybridge site.

It said the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had “completely failed in its historic management” of the center.

Defra said work was already underway to upgrade the laboratories.

The center is operated by the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). It is critical to the UK’s ability to control animal disease outbreaks and detect emerging pathogens.

The Public Accounts Committee found more than “1,000 single points of failure” at the Weybridge site.

The report said the decline had left the laboratories “persistently vulnerable to a major breakdown”, which would seriously affect the UK’s ability to respond effectively to outbreaks.

Some of the deadliest viruses on Earth are “zoonotic diseases” that cross between species such as Covid-19, Sars or Ebola.

The report said the risk to the UK of a zoonosis was “real and the consequences could be devastating”, and accused the government of not giving sufficient priority to this threat to “British health, trade, agriculture and rural communities”.

Commission President Dame Meg Hillier said: “After the foot-and-mouth disease disaster in 2001, animal diseases have been one after the other over the past few decades.

“It is shocking that the government has allowed Britain’s capacity in this area to deteriorate so appallingly over that same period,” she said. “These diseases are devastating to our food production systems, the economy and, when they transcend the human species barrier, as Covid-19 did, our entire society.”

A ranger at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Langford Lake Reserve in a white hazmat suit removes the carcasses of two dead swans, believed to be infected with bird flu

A ranger at a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve removes the carcasses of two dead swans, believed to be infected with avian flu

The UK and the EU are currently in the grips of a record outbreak of avian flu that has killed 48 million birds.

prof. Paul Wigley, professor of animal microbial ecosystems at the University of Bristol, warned that avian flu “has the potential to spread to other species, including us.”

“Weybridge has always been a central source of facilities and people. It has been placed in a dangerous position due to underfunding and crumbling facilities,” he said. “Without support, the UK is becoming increasingly unlikely to be able to cope with another major outbreak of an animal or zoonotic disease, along with the ongoing avian flu epidemic.”

The government has plans to redevelop the site, with the construction of a new science center due to start in 2027. However, the level of funding required is not yet final.

Prof James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, said the facility’s “steady decline” was evident.

“We can no longer rely on laboratory resources from European partner laboratories. The importance of laboratories is clearly demonstrated by their central role in the diagnosis and control of the ongoing unprecedented outbreak of avian flu.

“Weybridge’s current major redevelopment program is very welcome and important, but it will take many years to implement and there is a risk of lab failure in the meantime.”

A spokesman for Defra said: “Significant funding and work is already underway to upgrade (Weybridge’s) laboratories and ensure we are protected against these diseases in the future.

“The leading scientists and our field teams play a vital role in responding quickly and decisively to animal disease threats, including the current outbreak of avian flu, the largest ever.”

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