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Govt lab fighting avian influenza needs rebuilding

scientist looking through microscope

THE government must redevelop facilities at its Weybridge facility, which is responsible for managing avian influenza outbreaks, or risk limiting the UK’s ability to respond to future animal disease outbreaks, a new report has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has said that Defra has allowed facilities at APHA Weybridge, the UK’s primary site for managing threats from animal diseases, to deteriorate “to a point where some facilities are not fit for purpose”.

See also: £1.5m funding for new avian influenza research consortium

Defra leads government policy on animal health in England, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is responsible for investigating and responding to emerging animal disease outbreaks.

APHA also undertakes long-term research into animal diseases and supports trade in plants, animals and associated products.

Ageing buildings need major repair and replacement, and a lack of laboratory capacity negatively affects the APHA’s work.

‘Patch and repair’

The NAO’s report said that investment in Weybridge had stopped following the 2008 financial crash and that Defra currently had a “patch and repair” approach to the site that was “not sustainable”.

A programme of improvement is planned for the site, with a new laboratory hub and associated infrastructure.

However, the estimate for completing this work is £2.8bn, and only £1.2bn of funding has been approved by the Treasury.

‘Major redevelopment’

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Defra has allowed the Weybridge site to deteriorate to a point where major redevelopment is now urgently required.

“Considering the site’s importance to the UK, it has taken Defra a long time to set up a programme to redevelop it.

“The department has recently put in place many of the right measures to manage the redevelopment successfully, but it will need to navigate many risks to deliver a site that can protect the UK against animal disease outbreaks and demonstrate value for taxpayers.”

‘Reputation for excellence’

Biosecurity Minister Lord Richard Benyon told the BBC: “We are proud of Weybridge’s long-standing reputation for excellence in science and evidence that safeguards UK biosecurity, as demonstrated by the fact it is the international reference laboratory for a wide range of important pests and diseases.

“It is right that we plan to make significant investments into the site, which is why we have secured £1.4bn of funding so that we can continue to attract and retain the best scientists to ensure the UK’s protection from this kind of threat for decades to come through world-leading facilities.”