Insider reveals lax security at bio-lab (13/8/2007)

Reader comment on the article: What a disasterous scenario, first spread the disease by allowing it to escape, and then sell everyone the vaccine to combat it.


Insider reveals lax security at bio-lab
Jonathan Calvert and Brendan Montague
The Sunday Times, August 12 2007

A WORKER has raised concerns about bio-security at the state-owned research complex where the foot and mouth outbreak is believed to have originated.

Percy Ravate, a contract worker, was struck down with life-threatening Legionnaires’ disease, which he believes he caught while repairing pipework at the Pirbright complex in Surrey.

He said basic health and safety procedures were flouted, he was allowed to roam around laboratories and security measures such as checking visitors were not enforced.

His allegations came as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) continued investigations into a senior scientist at the complex who had an allotment neighbouring the field in which the first case of foot and mouth was identified. He had been using chemical drums – thought to be from the complex – as plant tubs.

Pirbright is the home of the government-run Institute for Animal Health, which is responsible for monitoring and preventing the virus. It also houses Merial, a private company that makes foot and mouth vaccine.

Both organisations possess the 01/BFS67 strain of foot and mouth that was discovered on two nearby Surrey farms. The strain is no longer found in infected cattle elsewhere in the world and the next nearest laboratory holding it is in Brussels.

HSE investigators are examining soil samples taken from the complex, which may reveal which of the two organisations might have been the origin of the leak.

It is believed Merial is the more likely source as it was producing 10,000 litres of foot and mouth vaccine at about the time the farms were infected.

But there have been a number concerns about the bio-safety standards at the institute, which was criticised by the HSE earlier this year for failings that could have led to the release of air-borne pathogens.

The institute holds a library of more than 5,000 viruses. It has been struggling to cope with cuts in funding in recent years.

Ravate, 49, from Hampton, southwest London, was hired with his brother to repair pipework at the institute’s isolation unit 10, which is usually used for research into vaccines and rare exotic diseases.

There were showers for scientists that were restricted because of contamination risks. But there was no research work going on while the pipes were being repaired, so Ravate and his brother had access to those areas. As a plumber, Ravate is not an expert in bio-safety but was amazed by the freedom he was given inside such a sensitive site.

He says he was never given an induction, or asked to shower, wear protective clothing or even clean his hands before leaving the building.

"We were in laboratories where they experimented on animals," he said. "There were no animals or boffins in there but we were allowed to walk around willy-nilly. We were left to it unaccompanied with no overalls, no masks and no gloves."

In fact the security appeared lax. He said: "Getting into the site was like going to Sains-bury’s. The only difference was I had to give my name and I could have said I was Mickey Mouse.

"I was driving the van so my brother would get out of the van and say ‘Percy’ and would be given my security pass. We could then go in."

Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the outbreak was a deliberate act of sabotage or even terrorism. Ravate says he could easily have sneaked other people into the complex because nobody checked his van.

The doors to the labs had swipe cards, but to help the workers they were left open. "They used to leave the doors on the catch for us. They could not leave us the swipe card."

He added: "We were doing work in the rooms above where they do all the testing in the laboratories. They [security guards] would say, ‘What time are you lads leaving? Just leave the doors open and we’ll lock it up afterwards’. We would just stroll out and give our badges back.

"We were allowed to walk everywhere. There was nothing to prevent us going into the different isolation units."

At lunchtime, the scientists from the labs would be segregated behind a glass partition, although canteen staff would serve both areas.

Ravate added: "When we used to walk from the canteen back to the isolation unit, we would go through a field and there was a sign saying, ‘Keep out, virus area, please shut the gate’. There was nothing stopping us going into the virus area."

Ravate is convinced he contracted Legionnaires’ disease while working at the institute in June. "I cracked open this pipe and there was a spray that came out . . . The spray came very close to me, it was like it had been under pressure and was released."

He was admitted to West Mid-dlesex University hospital in Isle-worth after reporting extreme flu-type symptoms. "I felt really weak and tired. I just wanted to die and would say, ‘Just let me sleep’, but you are absolutely struggling to survive."

Ravate has made a full recovery, but he has consulted a solicitor and is seeking compensation.

His illness is being investigated by the Health Protection Agency, which says it has found low levels of legionella bacteria at the institute. This finding was not enough to cause human infection, but the agency is awaiting the results of further tests.

The source of the foot and mouth outbreak remains a mystery. The institute says it used only 10ml of the suspect virus strain between July 14 and 25, when the leak is thought to have taken place.

The Merial site handled a million times more vaccine during that key period, according to the institute. HSE officials are concerned that the virus may have leaked from Merial’s drains during the heavy rains of July 20.

This could have been taken out of the plant on workers’ shoes or car tyres. Investigators last week accompanied Duncan Fawthrop, Merial’s deputy director, to his allotment that neighbours one of the farms with infected cattle.

The Cambridge-educated expert in foot and mouth disease is reported to have brought chemical drums from the centre onto his parish council allotment. It has emerged there was flooding between Fawthrop’s allotment and one of the neighbouring farms in late July. His home also adjoins the same farm.

The company said there was no evidence to suggest that Fawthrop had inadvertently carried the virus to the allotment. "Merial firmly understands that there is no way that Dr Fawthrop could have . . . taken the virus out of the laboratory."

A spokeswoman for the Institute said the legionella bacteria had not been found in a part of the complex where Ravate had been working. "He was swipe carded into a building that had been cleaned so he would not have been exposed to a virus."

Yesterday hopes were raised that the outbreak may have been contained. A total of 576 animals have been killed on three neighbouring farms around the village of Normandy, but only two were found to be infected with the virus.

The 2001 riddle

The cause of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak was never definitely identified, leaving scope for conspiracy theories.

According to one, a manufacturer was conducting secret tests on a vaccine at the Redesdale experimental farm near Otterburn, Northumberland, before the epidemic started.

The facility, run by ADAS Consulting, is about 20 miles north of Bobby Waugh’s Burnside Farm, where the disease was first detected.

The official inquiry concluded that the likeliest source of infection for pigs at the farm was contaminated swill being fed to them.

Bloggers have questioned how the disease got into the food chain. But the official Lessons to be Learned report stated: "The Redesdale experimental farm . . . has had no FMD-related activities. No FMD virus or vaccine has ever been kept there. And no livestock infected with or vaccinated against FMD has ever been knowingly kept on the farm."

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