April 25, 2003

Sars threat and research funding

Sir, There is a third factor in addition to short-termism and underfunding (Comment, April 22) which affects the UKs ability to respond rapidly to the possibility of a Sars epidemic.

In the 1970s, Lord Rothschild devised the customer-contractor principle, which targeted publicly funded research primarily in government-owned laboratories. The aim, admirable in itself, was to cut down on waste and the methodology was that the customer (eg, a government department) identified the work to be done, the contractor did it and the customer paid. The immediate result was that many excellent research programmes, primarily but not solely in the agricultural and food sectors, came to an abrupt end.

The long-term result was much more insidious: many leading researchers and their teams found that there was no thinking time and, in relation to BSE, foot-and-mouth and now Sars, little or no ability to respond actively and rapidly to a new problem.

Since the Rothschild report, movement across the globe of people, animals, plants and disease vectors such as viruses has increased significantly, with a consequent and absolute requirement for travelling/ trading nations to be able to mount an immediate response to any threat.

There is an urgent need for HM Government to set up a fund for such emergencies, which can be drawn upon by the chief executives of the UKs leading laboratories, public or private, so that active research and development can proceed much more immediately. CEOs should, of course, be publicly accountable for the use of such funds and, I suggest, most would welcome the additional responsibility.

Yours faithfully,
9 Kenilworth Road, Ealing, W5 5PB.

April 22.

From Mr Geoffrey Lord

Sir, We are fortunate to have in Britain a major foundation, Wellcome, and other fine trusts, and several government departments all funding research, yet we are not taking or sharing the lead in areas such as viral infections or BSE.

The Health Protection Agency must be allowed to act as an independent examiner of need and priorities, and to recommend and ensure effective action and co-operation between the several agencies, or funds for research will continue to be wasted.

Yours faithfully,
9 Craigleith View,
Edinburgh EH4 3JZ.
April 22.