UK scientists working at a state-of-the-art lab are preparing for bird flu to spread to people.
Health chiefs today unveiled a top-secret super lab within Porton Down that aims to boost pandemic preparedness and create a vaccine within 100 days of a new virus taking off.
Top scientists at the site confirmed they are readying the tools that would be needed if the H5N1 bird flu strain — which is behind an outbreak sweeping the world — took off in humans.
There is no sign that the virus, which is thought to have killed millions of birds in Britain and infected poultry workers, is currently able to spread between people.
But experts working at the new 3,000 square metre site fear an outbreak of H5N1, which kills close to 50 per cent of those it infects, could be around the corner.
The Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) (pictured) is based at the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) science and defence technology campus Porton Down, near Salisbury in Wiltshire
Scientists at work in the new UK government state-of-the-art laboratories at Porton Down
Health chiefs today unveiled a top-secret super lab at that aims to boost pandemic preparedness and create a vaccine within 100 days of a new virus taking off
The Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) is based at the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) science and defence technology campus Porton Down, near Salisbury in Wiltshire.
Dr Bassam Hallis, the UKHSA Porton Down deputy director, told The Telegraph: ‘We’re getting the tools ready that we would need if the virus transmits from people to people.’
Professor Isabel Oliver, chief scientific officer at the UKHSA, told the newspaper: ‘We are absolutely stepping up preparedness efforts for H5N1.
‘We’ve strengthened our surveillance, and are testing people who may have been exposed to it.’
Globally, fewer than 900 human cases of H5N1 have ever been recorded. It kills up to half of everyone who gets infected.
From chemical weapons to nerve agent tests, the controversial past of secret site
Nestled in the Wiltshire countryside five miles outside Salisbury sits the ‘top-secret’ government laboratory, Porton Down.
Most recently it was in the spotlight when a nerve agent was used in an attempted assassination of former Russian intelligence officer turned British double agent, Sergei Skripal.
The Ministry of Defence facility analysed the substance used, and identified it as a Novichok.
Established in 1916 after Germany’s use of chlorine gas, its remit was to conduct research and development of chemical and, later, biological weapons – 21,752 servicemen participated in the controversial programme from 1939 to 1989.
In 1953, aircraftman Ronald Maddison was taking part in nerve agent tests when sarin spilt on his arm – he was dead in an hour. His death was ruled as misadventure, overturned to unlawful killing in 2004.
In 2009, the MoD awarded £3million in compensation to 360 veterans of the tests, though without admission of liability.
The UK’s chemical and biological weapons programme was closed down in the 1950s.
A spate of cases have been detected in the UK since the unprecedented outbreak took off in October 2021.
Alan Gosling, a retired engineer in Devon who kept ducks at home, caught the virus in early 2022 after his ducks became infected. He later tested negative while he was quarantined for nearly three weeks.
All 160 of Mr Gosling’s ducks — including 20 that lived inside his home — were culled after he tested positive
Two British poultry workers then tested positive for bird flu in May, making them only the second and third human cases ever recorded in Britain.
In an update last month, the UKHSA reported that another two poultry workers tested positive.
Neither their close contacts or the around 50 other people who worked over the two affected sites tested positive, the UKHSA said.
No signs of human-to-human transmission have yet been detected in the UK.
Current advice from the UKHSA states the risk to public health from the virus is very low.
But experts fear the virus — which has since been spotted in mammals — could easily evolve to strike humans.
In a bid to prepare for bird flu or another virus taking off, scientists at Porton Down are working to create a vaccine that could halt the next pandemic within 100 days of it breaking out.
The ambitious target would smash the 362 days it took to develop a Covid jab, potentially stopping crippling lockdowns in future.
Scientists agree it is only a matter of time until the next pandemic strikes, with a recent government report putting it among the biggest threats to life this year.
The new super-lab, to which the Mail was invited last week, is geared to work with the world’s deadliest live viruses, with more specialist ‘high-containment’ labs than anywhere in Europe.
Working alongside academics and industry, it is the only site in the UK equipped to create a vaccine from start to finish.
The new super-lab, to which the Mail was invited last week, is geared to work with the world’s deadliest live viruses (File image)
Experts are working on a high-security project at Porton Down, the top-secret government laboratory, to develop prototype vaccines to tackle ‘Disease X’ when it hits
Dr Jenny Harries (pictured), head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said Britain is already primed to launch a ‘very slick and rapid response’ to the next global threat
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UKHSA, said Britain is already primed to launch a ‘very slick and rapid response’ to the next global threat.
Speaking at the launch of the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre, she said it signalled a ‘step change in terms of pandemic response’, adding: ‘The risk [of another pandemic] is growing.
‘The 100-day mission is to identify a pathogen of pandemic potential and within 100 days, you have vaccines to try and manage that.
‘This is shifting from being super ready to respond to actually trying to stop [pandemics] happening.
‘For previous vaccines it would have been five to ten years. For Covid it was 362 days, so to get to 100 days is really stretching the ambition. But if we’re going to prevent pandemics then that’s exactly what we need to do.’
Dr Harries admitted that the facility is not yet ready to deploy a vaccine within this timeframe if a new virus hit today but said the UK is ‘on the foothills of an entirely new approach’.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We often hear of the doom and gloom of potential pandemics, we have climate change, we have urbanisation, all sorts of things which are increasing risks on top of the normal changes in viruses.
‘So we know that risk is growing. But what we also have is a new way of new science to look at how we much develop vaccines early.’
Adjoining the Ministry of Defence site in Salisbury, Wiltshire, the 3,000 square metres of laboratory space is a positive ‘legacy’ of the pandemic.
Metal hangars were erected, and wings converted from old storage and office space into state-of-the-art labs when Covid struck, running vital tests to determine government policy such as which vaccines to buy.
Speaking at the launch of the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre, Dr Harries said it signalled a ‘step change in terms of pandemic response’, adding: ‘The risk [of another pandemic] is growing’
Early clinical trials are taking place for what could be a world-first vaccine against Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a virus spread by tick bites
Professor Isabel Oliver, chief scientific officer at UKHSA, said: ‘We have seen a very large number of new infectious diseases in recent decades. There’s no doubt there will be new pandemics in the not-too-distant future’
Its creation has seen capacity ramped up so scientists can run tests against a range of diseases on 3,000 samples each week, compared to 100 before Covid struck.
It means that in future, the science will be available to influence policymakers much faster, reducing the threat of the country grinding to a standstill. Even now, experts here are keeping tabs on new Covid variants, running tests to see how effective vaccines are and how long protection lasts.
Its remit goes way beyond Covid and bird flu, with more than 200 scientists working on upwards of 100 projects.
These include surveillance and potential vaccine development for diseases including tuberculosis and monkeypox.
Another project will focus on Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection common in hospitals that can be deadly to the elderly.
Scientists say global migration is leading to rising threats as people and animals move closer together. Global warming is also creating risks of pathogens carried by vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks appearing in previously unheard-of places, including the UK.
Early clinical trials are taking place for what could be a world-first vaccine against Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a virus spread by tick bites.
Professor Oliver said: ‘We have seen a very large number of new infectious diseases in recent decades. There’s no doubt there will be new pandemics in the not-too-distant future.
‘We know that through scientific advancement, we could detect and control these threats before they have the impact Covid-19 had on our lives.’
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the centre ‘cements the UK’s global position spearheading pandemic preparedness, vaccine development and scientific discovery’.
He added: ‘Hundreds of the world’s leading scientists are already in the centre working on vaccines… to save lives across the world.’