UK IAH opens £10m IS4L lab for virus research

Best engineering standards applied to ensure no pathogens can escape into the environment

More new laboratories are under construction at Pirbright, which hope to be opened in 2014. Image: IAH

The Institute for Animal Health (IAH) in Pirbright, Surrey, UK has completed a £10m hi-tech IS4L interim laboratory, which is packed with cutting-edge equipment to allow staff to deal safely with deadly animal viruses.

Dr Michael Johnson, Head of Estates at the IAH, says: ‘We need high containment-level laboratories that are fit for purpose. We work with the most dangerous animal pathogens and need the right facilities to do the work effectively.’

Funded by BBSRC and Defra, the Interim SAPO (Specified Animal Pathogens Order 1998) 4 Laboratory (IS4L) 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.’

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

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 has been built to replace the main laboratory at IAH, which was closed down in 2007 following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak at Pirbright that was contained.

‘This facility will ensure work on AHS, ASF and FMD can continue under the best conditions possible,’ says Johnson, who describes the new IS4L lab in the following video.

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.

The IS4L building 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.’

The new building, for example, features a unique secondary monitoring system that interrogates the primary building management system with real-time information on every single critical control, such as the air pressure and filtering systems.

The IS4L is part of a wider £100m+ development programme at IAH that will eventually see another bigger, better laboratory replace the one that has only recently has gone live.

‘It's currently in construction, on time and on budget, and we hope it will be ready by 2014,’ says Johnson.

The avian diseases division based at the IAH labs in Compton, Berkshire will also move to the new site in 2014 when 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.’