Health security labs: Keeping us on the front foot in the fight against health hazards


The scientific capabilities and technologies at our overall health stability laboratories, which include individuals in our science campuses at Porton Down, Chilton and Colindale and our regional labs, are at the main of our mission to safeguard people from all wellness hazards.

Our community consists of reference laboratories, labs learning hazards in food, water and the ecosystem, labs carrying out evaluation of exposures to harmful substances or radiation and high containment facilities where we get the job done with the most risky pathogens like Ebola.

Some of these capabilities are remarkably specialised, and possibly unusual or exclusive in the place, and we preserve them completely ready to reply to any emergency.

In this blog, printed for British Science Week, we are seeking at a single of our biggest internet sites at Porton Down, around Salisbury, in the south of England.

Considering that the commence of the pandemic, it has paved the way in our comprehension of COVID-19 and played a very important part in the enhancement and evaluation of vaccines that have saved plenty of life.

But the significance of our laboratories at Porton stretches much past the function the pandemic. Its do the job around many decades has impacted the lives of nearly each particular person in the Uk, and numerous other people in nations all over the earth.

Due to the fact its inception in 1940, when microbiological investigation commenced underneath the UKHSA’s predecessor organisations, the internet site has performed a significant part in defending individuals from critical organic threats, from Ebola and Lassa Fever to anthrax.

But what goes on at one particular of the world’s foremost scientific places? We spoke to 1 of UKHSA Porton Down’s Scientific leaders, Dr Bassam Hallis, to come across out.

“UKHSA truly is at the forefront in conditions of analysing infectious ailments,” he mentioned. “We are lucky plenty of to have environment top research technological innovation at our fingertips, and the scale of our amenities usually means we can comfortably take care of and analyse the highest grades of infectious conditions in the environment.

“The high quality of our operate implies we are in a position to satisfy the rigid prerequisites of world wide regulatory bodies, these kinds of as the MHRA in the Uk, the Food and drug administration in the United states of america and the EMA, throughout the European Union.

“This permits us to participate in a vital role in giving reputable evidence on infectious disorders and how they can be prevented. So, our operate is sturdy, dependable and recognised around the environment.”

Unexpected emergency response

The scale and range of skills on-website at Porton Down allows velocity and agility in its testing abilities – two essential elements in times of unexpected emergency.

This was no more clear than in early 2020, when the emergence of COVID-19 activated the rapid establishment and scaling up of crucial companies, together with substantial microbiological containment services to deal with and exam this new and mysterious virus.

One of the site’s largest contributions through the pandemic has been in vaccine advancement, testing success of unique vaccines against the initial pressure of the virus (regarded as wild-kind) and subsequent variants at any time due to the fact. This get the job done has knowledgeable the vaccination programme in the United kingdom and elsewhere.

Other exploration has integrated seroepidemiology studies (screening blood for earlier exposure to infection) to comprehend the population’s immune position from normal infection and vaccination, and top quality testing of lateral stream devices to make certain the quick exams we use in the British isles are capable to detect rising variants.

Scientific tests on viral transmission (how conveniently the virus is passed from human being to individual) and environmental survival (how very long it stays on surfaces) have also contributed proof to guideline our working day-to-day behaviours through the pandemic, such as carrying masks.

And the site’s capacity to isolate and improve strains of COVID-19, and run multiple complex exams simultaneously, has aided speed up finding out on how we can prevent the virus.

But COVID-19 is just 1 of numerous infectious diseases dealt with at Porton. Most recently, experts at the labs identified what was the initially known case of Lassa Fever in the British isles since 2009.

Their operate to promptly detect the disorder triggered crucial contact tracing of other people who may perhaps have been uncovered.

It has been a similar story in the identification of rare cases of Monkeypox and other infectious disorders in excess of quite a few decades, as Dr Hallis explained:

“When a person falls significantly unwell with a exceptional infectious disorder, it is not usually evident what is triggering it. The GP or whoever has assessed the individual will get vital information like their travel historical past and the recognized signs and symptoms. The moment these have been recognized, we can exam the samples, ideally identify the condition promptly, and then perform with other colleagues to observe all of that person’s contacts, acquire samples from all of them and check to make certain we are on prime of any likely unfold.

“These are really critical interventions and without the scientific confirmation of what we are dealing with, our community wellbeing groups would seriously be performing in the darkish.”

Vaccine development

Scientists at Porton Down carry out typical in depth analyses of a wide variety of infectious illnesses. This do the job will help recognize features of the viruses which assist advise the progress of the vaccines and medicines utilized to beat them.

This has been especially crucial because the emergence of COVID-19, and the details offered by UKHSA scientists enabled the United kingdom to be one particular of the initial international locations in the world to roll out a accredited vaccine.

Dr Hallis stated: “All viruses evolve and mutate about time, so it’s important we continually assessment the health care response. We do the job with other organisations and examination samples of variants as they crop up so we can observe the vaccine’s usefulness. This can help us choose no matter whether we need to have a new vaccine or a new combination to give the best safety.”

This perception into the behaviour of viruses is critical for vaccine suppliers hunting to ensure their merchandise present the best level of response. This is real in the two the growth of new vaccines, these types of as with COVID-19, but also new kinds of vaccines tackling perfectly-identified sicknesses.

Investigate executed at Porton Down was instrumental in the licensing of a flu vaccine for small children, administered by means of a nose spray, somewhat than injection.

“We are regularly looking to push the boundaries and make positive we are at the forefront of what is doable,” stated Dr Hallis. “We did all the testing for the nose spray vaccine and groundbreaking get the job done like this assures we can boost accessibility for people today to these crucial medications.”

Early assessments of the COVID-19 virus also presented very important facts that could be fed to brands through collaborative doing work teams. This information and facts aided build effective vaccines in record time.

World wide knowledge sharing

UKHSA’s status as a globally recognised institution is achieved in part for the knowledge, information and info it shares with science and coverage colleagues about the world.

This has proved vital throughout the modern pandemic, during which Porton has led the way in testing the performance of the COVID-19 vaccines. This facts has been shared with countries all over the globe to inform their very own public health and fitness responses and vaccine rollouts.

Experts at Porton Down have also been instrumental in schooling global colleagues in how to effectively cope with outbreaks of infectious ailment.

Throughout the Ebola outbreak in 2013, scientists from the UKHSA facility have been sent to Guinea to give their know-how.

Dr Hallis described: “Usually our teams are education NHS staff but all through that time we were being operating with medics, the Army and quite a few other people who were being likely to be deployed in Western Africa on a amount of areas. Firstly, we have been training them in the basic principles of how to have on their PPE, how to properly get it off and dispose of it, and typical excellent practice to prevent the distribute.

“Secondly, we despatched individuals to the location to support with jogging diagnostic exams on the samples and schooling community experts in the assessment of this unique virus. And thirdly, we established up a lab in Guinea in which we could carry out scientific trials to enable create a vaccine. So, we have been equipped to carry our skills and ensure anything was in put to make an productive response.”

The Ebola perform is just just one illustration of the sort of world assist scientists at Porton Down supply. There has been related knowledge-sharing for the duration of the Covid response, and multiple international locations have experienced their have vaccines tested at Porton to evaluate their efficiency.

Shifting ahead, with the latest opening of a new laboratory committed to screening new COVID-19 vaccines and variants, Porton Down will go on to enjoy a important job in the UK’s biosecurity.

Dr Hallis reported: “Our job now is as significant as it has at any time been, and we do not yet know what we will confront from COVID-19 in the future. Our job is to make certain our investigate carries on to give trusted knowledge and investigation to help notify our response to the pandemic and other biological threats. We want to continue being on the front foot as considerably as we can and facilities like Porton Down are critical if we are to reach that.”


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