A world-renowned animal disease research facility linked to the 2007 foot-and-mouth outbreak has been fined for failings during experiments with the disease.

It follows two incidents at The Pirbright Institute, Surrey in November 2012 and January 2013, in parts of a contained facility housing cattle infected with the foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV).

Neither incident resulted in the release of the disease to the external environment. However, the shortcomings in control and non-compliance with licence conditions were considered serious enough to warrant legal action.

The institute, which receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is regulated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on behalf of Defra. It was fined a total of £22,350 and ordered to pay a further £50,000 in costs after pleading guilty to eight breaches of the Specified Animals Pathogens Order (SAPO) 2008. It was prosecuted by the HSE for breaching the SAPO 2008 – the first time the legislation has been used.

City of London Magistrates’ Court heard the two incidents occurred when a ventilation system designed to create a negative pressure was operated in a different configuration from normal.

Ordinarily, such a facility would be maintained at differential negative pressures to ensure air containing FMDV would be drawn from clean areas into dirty ones before being filter-cleaned. FMDV could not escape airborne from the facility while the system was operated in this way.

Any changes to operating procedures at a facility of this kind have to be properly planned, assessed and agreed in advance with HSE and Defra, but that didn’t happen and protective measures were compromised.

As a consequence, on both occasions the required level of negative air pressure was not maintained. Crucially, on the first occasion there was no effective alarm system to warn staff working in the animal room about the loss of negative air pressure.

This meant the existence of the November incident did not emerge until during the course of an investigation into the later January incident.

The court was told the shortcomings did not result in the detected release of FMDV to the outside world, and that remaining safeguards were sufficient to ensure the risk of a serious event was avoided. However, the decision to prosecute had to be seen in the context that the institute is required to maintain high levels of controls at all times because of the highly contagious nature of FMDV if released.

The Pirbright site in Surrey was the origin of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2007. The pathogen is thought to have spread from the premises, which were shared by the Institute of Animal Health (IAH), now The Pirbright Insitute, and private company Merial, after escaping from Merial’s laboratories via leaky drains.

Speaking after this week’s hearing, Simon Warne, a principal specialist inspector from HSE’s biological agents unit, said: “At facilities where research is undertaken with foot-and-mouth disease virus it is imperative control measures are applied in a rigorous way.

“In common with other sites that pose major or significant hazards, either to people or the environment, there needs to be protection in depth. This involves having a number of protective measures, with each one providing some degree of assurance in the event of other failures.

“Our investigation identified failings with The Pirbright Institute’s management arrangements and controls for undertaking a series of experiments with foot-and-mouth disease virus. While the foot-and mouth disease virus was not, on these occasions, released to the outside world because of the multiple levels of protective measures in place, the failings were still significant.

“The fact The Pirbright Institute has pleaded guilty to all eight offences demonstrates they recognise the failings in their controls that existed at that time. HSE has, and will, continue to work closely with the institute to ensure appropriate management arrangements and controls are in place to support its important research work.”

A spokesman for the Government said it expected the highest standards to apply at all research establishments. “Safety measures at Pirbright ensured these incidents did not lead to any virus being released, but it is clear these offences should not have occurred,” the spokesman said. “Pirbright have taken steps to improve their procedures, but there are important lessons to be learned.”

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