UK lab may be source of Legionnaires and foot and mouth

By Colin Brown

LONDON - The public labs run by the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbrighthave become embroiled in a fresh controversy after revelations that a contractor who worked at the site has contracted Legionnaire's Disease.

The Pirbright labs, which comprise the IAH and the privately-run Merial company, are believed to be the most likely source of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease which has paralysed two Surrey farms.

The latest revelation comes as a profound embarrassment for the management of the labs who have gone to great lengths to deny any breaches of health and safety regulations.

"They need this like a hole in the head," said a source at the Merial lab.

It is also bound to increase public alarm about the safety of the public IAH labs where tests are carried out on a number of dangerous animal diseases, including African swine fever, Bluetongue, and Rinderpest in addition to foot and mouth disease.

The IAH which has other labs has also done research in the past on BSE 'mad cow' disease.

A report of the independent inquiry into the outbreak of foot and mouth disease will be delivered to Gordon Brown within days.

The report by Professor Brian Spratt of Imperial College London is already expected to be damning and far-reaching.

It will focus on the levels of security at the Pirbright labs and is almost certain to recommend tougher measures.

The report is expected to focus on the use of a live virus by Merial in the manufacture of vaccines and appropriateness of having a site in the middle of a farming area.

The main clue that a breach in security at the Pirbright labs was responsible for the outbreak was the discovery that same strain of the virus found in the cattle was also used by Merial on 16 July for the manufacture of vaccines.

It was last found in the countryside in 1967 and has not been circulating in cattle in recent years.

The possible case of Legionnaire's disease was discovered by a bizarre coincidence.

Inspectors from the HSE, which is investigating the foot and mouth outbreak, were working on the site when a team from the separate Health Protection Agency visited the Pirbright labs to check water sources which could harbour the disease.

"They are completely unrelated," said one HPA official.

"It has nothing to do with bio-security at the labs. We are investigating a case of Legionnaire's in a person who has worked at Pirbright.

"In the course of our investigations, we are looking at Pirbright but the only link is that he worked there. It is one of a number of places we will be investigating."

Professor Mike Catchpole of the HPA said: "It's caught by breathing in a fine spray of water that might be contaminated but let's be clear, there is no obvious link between the two.

"As yet we don't have any definite evidence that the individual caught the disease at that site."

Professor Spratt's report could indicate a worrying history of poor maintenance under the IAH.

The Pirbright facilities were attacked as "shabby" in a Commons select committee report before a major rebuilding programme began, and last December, the IAH's sister site at Compton, Berks, was served with an improvement notice for failing to protect workers from exposure to Legionnaire's Disease.

Early findings from the current investigation, which looked at the building in which the infected person worked, suggest the institute was carrying out all necessary maintenance and monitoring work in compliance with relevant codes of practice.

The inquiry is examining everywhere the patient has been in the 10-14 days before falling ill, including their home, place of work and anywhere they may have travelled or visited.

Legionnaires' Disease is caused by a type of bacterium found in the environment that causes a problem if it is converted into an aerosol form from a water source - such as in showers or spas - and inhaled.

It cannot be spread from one person to another, and mainly affects those aged over 50.

Symptoms include a "flu-like" illness with muscle aches, tiredness, headaches, dry cough and fever, leading on to pneumonia.

Meanwhile the findings of an HSE investigation into soil samples from the Merial labs are expected to be handed to the Government today.

But the Prime Minister is braced for the report on Monday by Professor Spratt, whom he appointed to carry out an independent investigation into safety at the plants.

His report is expected to focus on the use of a live virus by Merial in the manufacture of vaccines and appropriateness of having a site in the middle of a farming area.

- INDEPENDENT

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