A germ of anxiety in the labs


Great scares produce great leaps in science - and big increases in funding. The only good thing to emerge from the current anthrax threat would be a complete and rapid appraisal of how we conduct research into disease in Britain- who does it, how well, and what is holding it back. If the twin disasters of BSE and foot-and-mouth are anything to go by, the omens are not good. Both suggest a stunning failure at government level to anticipate, diagnose and deal with epidemics.

The latest fiasco, whereby scientists studying BSE were found to have mixed up sheep and cattle brains in the laboratory, does little to rebuild our confidence. A country once pre-eminent in medical science seems to have lost self-confidence and expertise. Yet, if germ warfare is to be the terrorists new weapon of choice, we have to be world leaders, pre-eminent in the vital field of microbiology - the study of bacteria and viruses.

This, however, is what Sir William Stewart, a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Cabinet and now the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told the British Association last month: "I am concerned about the way over the years our national infrastructure and our international standing in microbiology has been allowed to deteriorate. And I regret having to say this in the city of Glasgow - the home of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin."

Microbiology, he said, had become "a Cinderella subject - its infrastructure has largely been run down in this country". Although the Department of Health in England (not Scotland) was "addressing its needs", university facilities had declined, the big pharmaceutical companies had taken their microbiology research bases out of the United Kingdom, and there was no overall strategy to deal with "bug-related issues".

The decline dates back to the late 1970s, when the war against infectious diseases was declared over. The big killers such as tuberculosis and smallpox were no longer around, and resources were switched elsewhere. Under Margaret Thatcher, the emphasis in science was on the privatisation of research facilities, and bright young scientists found few opportunities in the public sector. At the same time, those who went private were accorded neither status nor respect by government agencies.

The research facilities of the Public Health Laboratory at Colindale, in North London, whose remit is "to protect the population from infection by detecting, diagnosing and monitoring communicable diseases", have been steadily reduced. It is not attached to any hospital, so has no clinical function, and its relationship with the NHS can best be described as uneasy.

Now there is talk of running the laboratory down yet further and devolving its diagnostic functions to hospital trusts. Its website does not suggest that speed of response is its strongest point, either - the "Anthrax" heading contains no reference to recent events.

Yet, when it comes to defending ourselves against germ warfare, the United KIngdom should by rights be well ahead of the game. The centre for applied microbiology at Porton Down is the only place in the world capable of producing licensed anthrax vaccine, and when the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, visited the US the other day, he talked about pooling its expertise with his opposite number in Washington.

What he did not say is that Porton Down has yet to hold clinical trials to test the ability of the vaccine to protect human beings, and its use during the Gulf War is still shrouded in controversy because of its reported side-effects.

Instead, as a Department of Health spokesman said yesterday, any outbreak of anthrax will be tackled by antibiotics, since that is quicker and more effective than any vaccination. As a short-term solution, that may be right. But if anthrax, or any of the other killers in the bioterrorists armoury, are to be defeated before they are allowed to defeat us, then effective vaccines must be developed.

As the latest issue of Science magazine reveals, that has, since September 11, become the most urgent task facing US scientists. In Britain, we need a convincing strategy, an effective structure, and adequate research funding. So far, there is not much evidence we have any of them.