Concerns have been raised about safety and funding at the Pirbright laboratory in Surrey, which was linked last week to the foot and mouth disease outbreak in nearby farms.
Pirbright is home to two organisations working on animal health research, the government funded Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and a private company called Merial Animal Health.
In 2002 a government funded report by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council described the lab’s condition as “unsatisfactory”, adding that there was “a clear need for urgent investment”.
Instead the IAH has been hit by cuts. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) cut its funding to the institute from £9.3 million in 2004-5 to £7.63 million in 2005-6.
Martin Shirley, head of the IAH, said last year, “We’re trying to deliver a Rolls-Royce service... but really we are being funded more and more at the level of a Ford Cortina.”
MPs on the House of Commons science and technology committee found last November that the IAH had suffered from “the loss of key staff and key skills”. MPs also rapped Defra minister Lord Rooker for his “dismissive” attitude to reports highlighting funding concerns.
Merial, in contrast, is a highly profitable company, reporting £1.1 billion from sales in 2006. It looks set to profit from the foot and mouth crisis – Defra has ordered 300,000 doses of the vaccine from Merial.
Foot and mouth is not the only disease being handled at Pirbright – potentially fatal diseases such as CJD, avian flu and salmonella are also present at the site. Inadequate biosecurity could have disastrous consequences.