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World-class facilities for virus research

Multi-million pound laboratory completed at Institute for Animal Health

5 January 2012

"Now if you want to come and film these areas you'll have to take your camera out via the quarantine facility... which means it may be fumigated and lost forever."

Dr Michael Johnson, Head of Estates at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), Pirbright, is describing how this will be the last time anyone takes a video camera into the new IS4L laboratories, the video of which can be seen below.

  World-class facilities for virus research

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Video transcript - Video and audio help - Watch video on YouTube


Completed on budget, this new high-tech interim laboratory is packed with all the cutting-edge equipment and to allow people to deal safely with deadly animal viruses. "We need high containment-level laboratories that are fit for purpose," says Johnson. "We work with the most dangerous animal pathogens and need the right facilities to do the work effectively."

Costing £10M and funded by BBSRC and Defra, IS4L stands for Interim SAPO (Specified Animal Pathogens Order 1998) 4 Laboratory (4 meaning Containment Level 4 - the highest) and is central to IAH's strategic priorities to enhance and protect animal health and ensure food security for the UK and the wider world.

"The IAH runs a number of strategic programmes that are all involved with looking at exotic diseases one way or the other," says Johnson. "The programmes deal with the most economically important agents to the UK."

Enemy at the gate

The work in IS4L will primarily focus on animal virus diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), African swine fever (ASF) and African horse sickness (AHS).

IS4L will work on high containment viruses, such as FMD, pictured. Image: IAH
IS4L will work on high containment viruses, such as FMD, pictured. Image: IAH

Some diseases, such as FMD, are familiar foes and present a major threat to the UK economy. In fact, IS4L has been constructed to replace the main laboratory at IAH which was closed down in 2007 following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak at Pirbright which was contained. "This facility will ensure work on AHS, ASF and FMD can continue under the best conditions possible," says Johnson.

Diseases such as ASF and AHS - both of which have more than 90% mortality rate - show signs of changing distribution patterns, possibly due to climate change, and would be devastating to rural communities and the UK economy at large if outbreaks occurred on British soil.

Building up

The IS4L building is special in a number of ways. It has the best engineering standards applied to it to ensure that no pathogen can escape to the environment. "This is critically important to our work," says Johnson. "We want to make sure we are operating safely within the laboratory and so we have a number of layers of protection between ourselves and the environment."

What's unique to this building is the secondary monitoring system that interrogates the primary building management system with real-time info on every single critical control, such as the air pressure and filtering systems. Johnson says it's a revolutionary system - not used in other buildings to his knowledge - which puts IAH at the vanguard of this type of engineering

The IS4L building is part of a wider £100M+ development programme at IAH that will eventually see another bigger, better laboratory replace the one that only recently has gone online. "It's currently in construction, on time and on budget, hope to be ready by 2014," says Johnson.

In addition, the avian diseases division based at the IAH labs in Compton will move here in 2014 as IAH's operations are consolidated on one site. "By 2014 we should have the world's best high containment facilities," Johnson explains. "We are working to ensure that everything that goes in there is the world's best."

More new laboratories are under construction at Pirbright. Image: IAH
More new laboratories are under construction at Pirbright. Image: IAH