Report from Defra Weybridge: Rebuilding the bird flu laboratory at the Defra-Weybridge Animal Disease Lab -

Thursday, June 16, 2022
author picture Lina Fontaine
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Weybridge Animal and Plant Health Agency

The UK government's decision to allocate PS200 million to revamp the Animal and Plant Health Agency's Weybridge laboratories is a welcome boost for the UK's role in the fight against zoonotic diseases. These facilities are world-renowned for their specialist animal health science and disease control capabilities. The funds will be used to increase the laboratory's capacity and focus on high-risk animal diseases.

Testing bird flu samples Public spending watchdogs warn that the UK's poor main laboratory could make it difficult to fight animal diseases such as bird flu. Some of the facilities at Weybridge's government veterinary station in Surrey have become so bad they no longer meet their needs. According to the National Audit Office, delays in its reconstruction could slow down the UK's ability to respond to another outbreak of disease. According to the government, it is taking measures to ensure that the facility's future remains secure. The UK's primary animal health laboratory is located at Weybridge, which is managed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. It is where international important research is conducted into key animal diseases like BSE, Foot and Mouth, and bird flu.

Substantial uncertainty

Wednesdays NAO report We examine the government's plans for redevelopment of the site. Construction of a science hub is expected to begin in 2027. This article will assess whether or not these plans are worth the money. The original estimate by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was that it would cost PS1.2bn to rebuild, but now this number has risen up to PS2.8bn, a figure which has yet to be approved by HM Treasury. The NAO also stated that there is still considerable uncertainty about costs. To maintain the site, it will require an investment of approximately PS197m between 2020-2025. According to the report, Weybridge's condition is poor. There are many old buildings in Weybridge that require major repairs and replacement. Also, there is a shortage of science-related capacity. Defra allowed the Weybridge site of its to deteriorate into a condition where many facilities were no longer suitable for their purpose. Poor strategic management and underinvestment have greatly increased risk and complexity in the redevelopment program. There may be delays in completing the program, which could expose APHAs operations and potentially limit its ability to effectively respond to major diseases outbreaks.

Reputation for excellence

Gareth Davies (head of the NAO) stated that Defra has recently implemented many of the correct measures to successfully manage the redevelopment, but that it must navigate many risks in order to create a site that is both safe for animals and profitable for taxpayers. In 2019, Defra stated that the loss of lab capability could result in a complete loss of capabilities within the next ten years, making the UK more vulnerable to animal diseases. Defra responded to the today's report by saying that the cost estimate for the rebuilding would be further refined, and that the NAO review had highlighted the importance of investment on the site. Lord Richard Benyon, Biosecurity Minister: We are proud to Weybridges reputation for excellence and evidence that protects UK biosecurity. This is evident by its status as the international reference laboratory on a broad range of pests and disease. We plan to invest significant amounts in the site. This is why PS1.4bn has been secured to continue to recruit and retain top scientists so the UK is protected from such threats for many decades through our world-leading facilities. The APHA laboratory is currently dealing the highly pathogenic avian flu H5N1 outbreak, which has already seen over 100 cases in the UK.